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Group Health to buy Columbia Medical

Group Health Cooperative plans to buy one of Spokane’s largest family medicine practices.

Columbia Medical Associates, which includes 30 primary care physicians who work in at least a dozen clinics scattered across the Spokane area, would become the latest physicians group to align with a one of the region’s major health care providers.

Columbia doctors became loosely organized about 30 years ago. Their ties strengthened over the years and combined they treated about 75,000 patients last year.

Years ago they ushered in a novel coverage plan that collects a $25 monthly fee from patients in exchange for access to basic health care. It was designed as a way to help the uninsured afford primary care.

By joining Group Health, the doctors will become part of the growing accountable care organization that Providence Health Care is forming. Providence operates Sacred Heart Medical Center and Holy Family Hospital, and employs a deep pool of specialists.

Kelly Stanford, chief executive of Columbia, said the doctors who own the clinics see such organizations as the best way to offer complete and cost-effective care to patients in the future.

“A few years ago we began looking strategically at the future and wondered ‘How can we do the best work in this new health care world?’” she said. “In the end we see accountable care and integrated health as an answer. That’s where we’re headed.”

Financial terms of the proposed buyout have not been disclosed. Stanford said the deal would not affect the insurance needs or status of patients. And the individual clinics will keep their names, even under new ownership.

Group Health is eager to make changes in its Spokane operation, said Dr. Paul Sherman, medical director for strategy deployment at Group Health’s Seattle headquarters.

“Spokane is very dis-integrated, and we don’t achieve the same outcomes in terms of quality, service or cost that we do in Puget Sound,” Sherman said. “We think that the Spokane community deserves better, so we need to partner differently with people and Columbia is very interested in figuring out – together with us – how we can do that to really improve things in Spokane.”

The sides anticipate finalizing the buyout by July.

Sherman said he doesn’t foresee immediate changes in practice procedures and personnel.

Physicians are increasingly turning to larger health care organizations such as Group Health and hospital systems to handle administrative tasks, manage reimbursement changes from insurers and Medicare and Medicaid, and absorb others risks – all in exchange for a steady paycheck and benefits.

Such buyouts are concentrating medical care. Two years ago The Rockwood Clinic was purchased by Community Health Systems Inc., which previously bought Deaconess Medical Center and Valley Hospital and Medical Center.

Other clinics large and small have since aligned or sold to either Community Health or Providence as the two hospital systems jostle for patients.

Stanford said both hospital systems expressed an interest in buying the Columbia clinics.

“In the end we like Group Health’s model of having a medical home,” she said.

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