St. Vincent takes over Mercy Hot Springs

By Wayne Bryan Published April 7, 2014 at 11:49 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Peter Banko, president and CEO of St. Vincent Health System, speaks to the crowd in Hot Springs on Wednesday at an event marking the purchase of Mercy Hospital by Catholic Health Initiatives, the parent company of St. Vincent. Mercy Hospital is now called St. Vincent Hot Springs, keeping the Hot Springs facility connected with the Catholic church.

After more than two years of failed business deals, controversy over health care and religion, and negotiations that came down to the wire, what was known as Mercy Hospital Hot Springs is now St. Vincent Hot Springs, the newest of 88 hospitals operated by Catholic Health Initiatives.

In a formal announcement, a news conference and a religious service, all held under a tent in the parking lot of the Hot Springs hospital, the medical center’s continued connection with the Catholic church was the major theme. Around 300 people, including many staff members and doctors from the hospital, gathered for the announcement.

“I want to express that the mission of this hospital will be the mission of the Catholic church every day,” said Beth O’Brien, chief integration officer and senior vice president of Catholic Health Initiatives of Denver, the new owners of St. Vincent Hot Springs. “This hospital will strengthen CHI in Arkansas with our common foundation in the Catholic faith and tradition.”

CHI operates St. Vincent Health System, based around St. Vincent Hospital in Little Rock. With the acquisition by St. Vincent of Mercy Health System’s Hot Springs hospital and clinics, the Arkansas-based health care organization will have two of the oldest hospitals in the state, with 4,500 employees, relationships with 1,000 physicians and more than $700 million in revenues.

On Wednesday, CHI officials in Denver also announced that the company had acquired QualChoice Holdings, the second-largest health insurer in Arkansas. QualChoice is the parent company of OCA Health Plan, headquartered in Little Rock. The sale must be reviewed and approved by the Arkansas Insurance Department.

In Hot Springs on Tuesday, Peter Banko, president and CEO of St. Vincent, told employees, doctors and the community that little would change at the hospital.

“There is a new name and new leadership, but the day-to-day operations will not change,” he said. ‘This St. Vincent relationship will allow us all to deliver the Catholic ministry of medical care in a more-efficient way.”

Meanwhile, Banko was reluctant to call the union between the two hospitals a sale or even an acquisition.a

“This is just more of a transition from one organization to another,” he told the Tri-Lakes Edition.

The St. Vincent CEO also said the price paid by CHI for Mercy Hot Springs is confidential between the two nonprofit organizations.

Banko said CHI and St. Vincent Health System had long been interested in establishing a partnership with Mercy Hot Springs, and that the interest grew after Bishop Anthony Taylor of the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock expressed his opposition to Mercy selling the hospital to Capella Healthcare, a for-profit company that operates National Park Medical Center in Hot Springs.

In addition, the Vatican issued a statement against the proposed sale, and the Federal Trade Commission also announced opposition to the sale because it would have placed the two largest hospitals in Hot Springs under one ownership.

A letter from Bishop Taylor was read at the gathering by Monsignor Francis Malone, who opened the announcement meeting with prayer. The letter proposed a new mission for church-related health care facilities.

“Many Catholic hospitals operate as community ser-

vices that are hard to distinguish from non-faith-based institutions,” Taylor said in the letter. “We need to more clearly define our efforts as Catholic apostolic health care that comes directly from Christ and can be shared with all people.”

The bishop called for a commission that would develop a pastoral plan to rejuvenate church-based health care.

“To say a hospital has Catholic rooms or a Catholic heritage is all about the past,” Malone read from the letter. “Faith is now the future, with Christ at the center of everything we do. As Christ made the blind man see, he also healed him spiritually. We need to do both physical and spiritual healing.”

Speaking for Mercy Health, Jon Swope said the handover of the hospital is “bittersweet and a great blessing” because it continues more than a century of faith-based health care.

Swope thanked the doctors and staff of Mercy hospital for their work during the times when the future was unknown for the hospital personnel. He tried to reassure those attending the ceremony.

“The name on the door is changing, but the commitment to our people, the patients and the community will stay the same,” he said.

“As far as we know, there will be no changes in how things are running in the building,” said staff member Teresa Lambert, a registered nurse and executive director of outpatient services, after being asked if she believes her job is secure.

Swope said Mercy is not entirely leaving the community.

“We will continue to stand with you through our support of the Cooper-Anthony Mercy Child Advocacy Center, which has provided vital counseling and service for more than a decade to children and families impacted by abuse,” he said.

Mercy will retain the advocacy center, the state’s first hospital-based facility for child abuse and neglect.

At the center, a child is interviewed by a professional to find out if he or she has been mistreated, said Janice McCutcheon, director of the Cooper-Anthony center. While finding out whether abuse or neglect has occurred, the approach produces evidence that will stand up in court if the investigation leads to prosecution.

During the gathering, Banko announced that Tom Fitz of St. Vincent will be interim president of the hospital. He has worked for CHI in Morrilton as well as in Kansas as several hospitals transferred their ownership. Fitz was also CEO of a CHI hospital in Georgia for almost 10 years.

Bryan Williams, executive director of nursing for the St. Vincent Health System, is the new vice president of patient care at St. Vincent Hot Springs. Dr. Doug Ross, the former director of emergency medicine at Mercy Hot Springs, will be president of medical affairs and chief medical officer and part of St. Vincent’s leadership of the hospital.

Banko said St. Vincent will continue the hospital’s commitment to the Hot Springs community. He said a board of local residents will be selected who will oversee the h0spital’s operations, and Hot Springs residents will be members of St. Vincent’s board of trustees and the St. Vincent Foundation.

“I think we have great people here,” Banko said. “It’s just a matter of blending our two cultures together.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or at

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or

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