January 16, 2010 in City

Deaconess, INHS temper latest clash

But mistrust over money, transparency remains
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Deaconess Medical Center and Inland Northwest Health Services have stepped back from a dispute over unpaid bills and financial records that threatened to disrupt the hospital’s use of electronic medical records.

INHS has agreed not to pull its computer support employees out of Deaconess, while Deaconess has agreed to pay INHS monthly for its services. Beyond that, the two health care organizations are still fighting in court over $6.4 million in allegedly unpaid bills and licensing issues, and the agreement did little to ease a growing mistrust between the longtime partners.

In a letter Friday to Deaconess employees, chief executive Bill Gilbert said the hospital did not accede to demands INHS made earlier this week to sign a new contract and prepay for two months of services.

He criticized INHS’ intention to remove 29 computer support personnel starting Tuesday.

“While it is disturbing that another healthcare organization would contemplate such a drastic action – which would have jeopardized our ability to care for patients – I want to assure you this matter has been addressed,” Gilbert said.

Deaconess, purchased 16 months ago by national hospital operator Community Health Systems Inc., is a founding partner of INHS and controls half of the board’s voting seats. The rest are controlled by Providence Health Care, which operates Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.

INHS, conceived 15 years ago as a collaboration between hospital rivals Deaconess and Sacred Heart, operates Northwest MedStar air ambulance services, St. Luke’s rehabilitation hospital and a growing network of electronic medical records that has earned national acclaim.

The relationship between INHS and Deaconess’ new owner has soured over money and transparency.

“We continue to ask for detailed invoices and accounting for INHS, and we are confident that eventually the organization will have to comply with our requests,” Gilbert said. “Like any customer, we believe we have a right to complete billing information.”

Tom Fritz, chief executive of INHS, said Deaconess officials “continue to publicly make erroneous statements about INHS.”

He said nonprofit INHS’ financial records and billing statements for Deaconess are open to inspection by the hospital’s management team. But Deaconess officials’ request to view business and financial information of other INHS customers is “inappropriate and violate INHS’ commitment to safeguarding the confidentiality of all customers and patients records,” Fritz said.

“Protecting that confidentiality is not only stated in our bylaws, it’s the honorable thing to do,” he said.

The agreement, Fritz said in a letter to INHS employees Friday afternoon, requires Deaconess to pay for services each month, as the court case continues.


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