“The Healthy State.” That desirable brand could be Minnesota’s to own in the 21st century. This state can already make a strong claim to leading the nation in the quality and affordability of its health care delivery, the reach of its insurance coverage and the well-being of its citizens. But additional steps to solidify its claim on health leadership are needed.
Most important among them: boosting the academic and research standing of the University of Minnesota Medical School to top 10 status among its peers. That’s where it ranked a generation ago. It stands at 30th in National Institutes of Health grants in the most recent ranking.
Fortunately, news this month bodes well for the school and, by extension, Minnesota’s “Healthy State” identity. The U and Fairview Health Services announced that they’ve begun steps to make their 18-year-old partnership at the U’s Medical Center a lot stronger.
With an Oct. 9 green light from the U’s Board of Regents, negotiations have begun in earnest on the particulars of a proposed merger between Fairview and University of Minnesota Physicians, the 750-physician group practice whose members also serve as faculty at the Medical School. Their aim is a top-to-bottom, fully integrated combination by mid-2016 that will erase the 109-year-old Fairview name in favor of a new one — University of Minnesota Health, or M Health for short.
Health care mergers and acquisitions have become common in the Obamacare era, but among them, this one ought to be a standout. All health care combinations promise greater efficiency and value in the delivery of medical care; on that score, M Health would be no exception. Through Fairview’s 42 clinics, seven hospitals and the Ebenezer family of long-term care services (which would retain its separate identity), M Health would offer coordinated services “from a scraped knee to a lung transplant,” Fairview interim CEO David Murphy said.
But unlike others, this combination also has the potential to improve medical education and research at the U, where the lion’s share of Minnesota’s medical personnel are trained. That in turn can mean better care and more cures for all Minnesotans, regardless of their medical home.
More revenue flowing from hospitals and clinics to the Medical School is anticipated. So is better access for the university to clinical sites for research trials and medical training. That wider access should enhance the university’s ability to compete nationally for research funding and top student and faculty talent, even as it gives patients more opportunity to participate in clinical trials.
M Health should be a boon to research that advances Minnesota’s important medical-device industry. It should also be a plus for education and research in related fields such as pharmacy and public health.
All of that is possible without eroding the independence of the Medical School or its accountability to the state, assured the school’s dean, Brooks Jackson. M Health is envisioned as an independent, nonprofit organization whose governing board is split 50-50 between university and Fairview appointees and whose CEO is a faculty member. It’s expected to unfold without internal layoffs or disruption to the existing relationships Fairview and U physicians have with independent health care providers.
The merger has been a long time coming. Deeper combinations have been considered several times since Fairview rescued the U’s hospital from a financial crisis in 1997, taking ownership of what is now the Medical Center. No such crisis is propelling a full merger, leaders on both sides say. Rather, there’s a growing awareness that “to have a world-class medical school, we really need a world-class health system, and vice versa,” Jackson said.
Many details remain to be decided. The same can be said for another major initiative already in progress that also would build Minnesota’s “Healthy State” brand — the Destination Medical Center (DMC) project at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. The two stand to be complementary, with M Health serving Minnesota patients and Mayo seeking to boost its international clientele. Unlike the DMC, M Health does not anticipate asking taxpayers for additional resources. But at the urging of Gov. Mark Dayton, the 2015 Legislature committed an additional $15 million per year for the next two years to the Medical School to underwrite hiring up to 40 additional tenure-track faculty, with an emphasis on interdisciplinary research.
These are the strategic moves of leaders who are seizing the opportunity to turn a longtime local asset — quality health care — into a signature economic advantage for this state. We think they’re making a smart bet, and that Minnesotans should cheer them on.