Merger between ECU Physicians, Vidant, just months away

GREENVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) – The merger between ECU Physicians and Vidant Medical Group could begin within months, according to higher up officials with both groups.

On Tuesday, WNCT sat down with Dr. Paul Cunningham, dean of the Brody School of Medicine, and Mike Waldrum, CEO of Vidant Health, to discuss developments in a deal that would merge two of the East’s biggest employers.

“There are a lot of people who need service in Eastern North Carolina that either aren’t getting service or have to go to other communities to get service,” Waldrum said.

The plan to merge is being called Project Unify and aims to provide better access, and quality, of care. Leaders with the two groups said discussions began years ago.

Waldrum said the main reason to merge isn’t due to money, but rather common sense approaches that could solve problems not only in the East but across the entire country.

“One of our objectives is to create the model for rural health and education,” he said.

Both entities have been hit hard by healthcare reimbursement cut backs. Brody has had financial difficulties themselves, leading them to ask the governor for further support.

However, during the 2015-2016 fiscal year, ECU Physicians netted $16.2 million, which helped to replenish funds that had been drained in years past.

Dr. Cunningham said the move to merge makes sense since they already work closely with Vidant.

“Our intention is to create better value and use the dollars that we will receive as effectively as we can,” he said.

The move could open up new avenues of obtaining grants needed for important research in the East. Physicians with both ECU and Vidant would have access to research, and researchers would have a 29 county region they could study from.

Dr. Betsy Tuttle-Newhall, chair of the ECU Department of Surgery, said the end goal is to improve the care patients in the East receive.

“We’ll make the process more efficient, avoid duplication of services, we’ll make things move more efficiently and effectively for patients,” she said.

However, despite all of the positives, ECU Physician employees have raised concerns about job security and keeping their state employee benefits. Tuttle-Newhall said benefits would come down to HR, but that they didn’t plan on cutting any jobs due to the merge.

Dr. Mark Rumans, the System Chief Medical Officer at Vidant, said employees he has spoken to agree with the move.

“The doctors that I’ve talked to in Vidant Medical Group are very excited to have more access to education opportunities,” he said.

Currently, ECU Physicians employs 1,200 people, with Vidant Medical Group employing about the same number. Last year, the two entities combined saw more than 1.5 million patient visits across the East.

Both Cunningham and Waldrum believe the merger would increase retention of medical students after they graduate and attract other physicians to the area.

The merger would create a third group, which hasn’t been named yet. The group would have a separate board, with Vidant holding a 51% majority.

The two groups have moved forward in filing articles of incorporation with the North Carolina Secretary of State under the name VECU Medical Group, Inc.

Both ECU’s and Vidant’s boards still have to approve the plan, and a name must be decided on, before moving forward. Full integration would likely take years.

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