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Empire Health needs $100 million to modernize

Thu., April 12, 2007, midnight

Empire Health Services needs $100 million to upgrade its computer systems and modernize Deaconess Medical Center buildings and equipment, chief executive Jeff Nelson said during public forums this week.

About $20 million is needed for new computers, software, installation and staff training. The technology investment in information technologies would better align patients’ records, doctors’ notes, pharmacy information and body-scan images, for example.

The hospital system, which also operates Valley Hospital and Medical Center, is searching for an investment partner or buyer to push the needed improvements and seize upon the hospital’s financial turnaround from a $36 million loss in 2004.

With 2,800 local employees, Empire is the second-leading private-sector employer in Spokane County. It averages 230 patients a day at its two hospitals.

Though no decision has been made, Empire’s community board of directors is having talks with at least one for-profit hospital company, Tennessee-based Community Health Systems Inc.

The board, led by chairman Ron McKay, has hired hospital broker Cain Brothers to find appropriate business suitors. The work, however, may not necessarily result in a deal. The board may choose to forgo a partnership or sale. A decision is expected by late summer, said spokeswoman Becky Swanson.

During one forum, Spokane resident Florence Young said she was concerned about what could happen to Empire’s charitable mission in Spokane if it sold to a for-profit company. She also questioned the future of women’s reproductive health services provided by Empire that are not available at Spokane’s Catholic hospitals, including market leader Sacred Heart Medical Center and Holy Family Hospital.

Nelson said such questions are part of the board’s considerations.

The public forums – five in all – were held this week to solicit comments from interested community members. Nelson led the meetings, which typically drew between 12 and 25 people. Empire board members also attended some of the meetings to hear firsthand the concerns and ideas of attendees.

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