Officials said Wednesday that all employees of the Blue Mountain Health System of Lehighton will be retained following its merger with St. Luke’s University Health Network.
Blue Mountain, which has two hospital campuses in Lehighton and Palmerton, Carbon County, employs about 670 full-time, 140 part-time and 200 per-diem staff and health care professionals.
“The promise to preserve our 1,000 employees and medical staff, continue and expand existing services and attract other specialty physicians to Carbon County were primary motivators [in choosing St. Luke’s],” said Andrew E. Harris, president and CEO of Blue Mountain Health System.
“St. Luke’s’ history of these qualities made it an ideal partner, and a partnership that I am very proud of and excited for the future of this community and Carbon County,” Harris said.
Officials also said that although it will be a number of months before the merger is completed, a preliminary review indicates that compensation in most instances will be enhanced.
The agreement, which was signed Sept. 11, is subject to certain conditions, including review and approval by various federal and Pennsylvania regulatory agencies, and is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
Officials said that in the health care environment, it has been increasingly difficult for small, independent hospitals to be financially successful.
“Our board, by unanimous decision, determined that St. Luke’s’ track record, working with and reviving other hospitals, was key to this decision,” Harris said.
BMHS includes two hospitals, Gnaden Huetten in Lehighton and Palmerton in Palmerton, and a skilled nursing facility, The Summit at Blue Mountain in Lehighton. BMHS’ combined revenues for Lehighton and Palmerton were $92.4 million in 2016, an increase over 2015 when they were $90.6 million.
The two Carbon County hospitals, which had been independent and competed with each other, combined their organizations in 2004 into an integrated health system. They merged in 2016 to form Blue Mountain Health System with two campuses.
No money will be exchanged between St. Luke’s and BMHS.
Officials said that the transaction isn’t about money, but about providing quality services to BMHS patients and residents of Carbon County.
The agreement includes commitments by St. Luke’s to maintain and enhance services at both the Palmerton and Gnaden Huetten campuses, offer employment to BMHS employees within good standing, maintain charity care policies similar to other St. Luke’s hospitals, retain the members of the medical staff of BMHS and assume physician employee agreements.
St. Luke’s plans to work with existing BMHS physicians and the community to determine if and where additional specialists are appropriate.
“The partnership we are announcing between Blue Mountain and St. Luke’s is a home run,” said Steven Zerfass, chair of the Blue Mountain Health System’s Board of Trustees.
“The board of trustees has been committed in ensuring that the residents of Carbon County continue to receive the highest quality, most cost-effective health care now, and for years to come,” he said. “… St. Luke’s long history and shared dedication of these goals make them a perfect partner for Blue Mountain.”
BMHS, which was courted by several large health networks, said among the reasons it chose to merge with SLUHN was its reputation for restoring struggling hospitals back to fiscal health, citing its mergers with Quakertown Community Hospital in 1995, Allentown Osteopathic in 1997, Miners Hospital in 2000 and Warren Hospital in 2012.
“Choosing the right partner that shared our mission and commitment to quality care was a priority,” Harris said.
“We now have an incredible opportunity to raise the level of health care in Carbon and neighboring counties and provide residents with even greater access to care.”
The merger will allow the combined health network to develop new programs and service opportunities and increase access to physician specialists in the Carbon County region, SLUHN said.
Richard A. Anderson, president and CEO of SLUHN, said, “Health care is a local issue, and, as such, health care services should be easily accessible to the community.”
He said its network has a long history of working collaboratively and forming successful partnerships with community hospitals that have joined its network.
Any name changes will be determined once the final merger is approved by regulatory bodies.
“This board [BMHS] was very thorough in its approach in considering who should be its partner that helps Blue Mountain go to the next level,” Anderson said. “We went through a very thoughtful and questions-asked process to get to today.”
SLUHN employs more than 11,000 people at seven hospitals and more than 270 outpatient sites throughout the Greater Lehigh Valley and in Warren and Hunterdon counties in New Jersey.
Anderson said there are about 1,000 openings for employment across the organization’s network.
SLUHN, in partnership with Temple University School of Medicine, operates a regional medical school campus, and operates the nation’s oldest school of nursing and is a major teaching hospital.
“We don’t lay people off just because we want to save a buck,” Anderson said. “We try to find opportunities for people.”
The St. Luke’s network has grown significantly over the years, when in 1989 its operating budget was $130 million. Today, before its merger with BMHS, it is about $1.6 billion.
“We have grown a lot … and we’re looking forward to the opportunities for the folks here [BMHS],” Anderson said.
“I want to welcome all of the Blue Mountain employees, friends and volunteers, into the St. Luke’s family. We have a very positive journey ahead of us.”
Lehigh Valley Business staff reporter Wendy Solomon contributed to this report.