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Hospital again in merger talks

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The on-again, off-again talks between Enumclaw Regional Hospital and the huge Franciscan Health System have been rekindled.

It was formally announced this week that the local hospital's board of directors has approved a letter of intent to begin discussions with Franciscan. Those negotiations are aimed at arriving at a deal whereby ERH would join the Franciscan system.

Franciscan already has a foothold in the Enumclaw community, operating the Enumclaw Medical Center physicians clinic on Griffin Avenue. Its larger regional holdings include St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma, St. Francis Hospital in Federal Way and St. Clare Hospital in Lakewood. Franciscan also is in the planning stages to build St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor.

The driving force behind the merger talks is the Enumclaw directors desire to see a new, larger hospital built. The hospital board has been working toward that goal for years, putting money aside, buying up property across from the current hospital and even going so far as to hire a consultant specializing in hospital construction.

Those ambitious plans, however, have been derailed due to the high cost of hospital construction. Original plans were scaled back not long ago when it was determined the local operation could not afford the type of facility it hoped for.

Finances would not be a problem if the merger with Franciscan became reality.

“An affiliation with Franciscan will bring many benefits to our community, starting with the construction of a much-needed modern new hospital facility,” said Enumclaw resident Steve Moergeli, a hospital trustee and chairman of the board of directors’ Affiliation Committee.

As part of the partnership between ERH and Franciscan, the current hospital would be replaced by a state-of-the-art, 90,000 square-foot facility. Included would be medical equipment not found in the present hospital.

Dennis Popp, ERH administrator, said the merger could bring additional doctors to the community, along with expanded medical, surgical and community outreach services.

Representatives from Enumclaw Regional Hospital and its board will spend the coming month in talks with Franciscan representatives to determine how the partnership will be structured. Final details will need to be approved by the boards of both organizations, along with the ERH Association membership. The ERH Association has more than 300 members who have paid $25 lifetime dues.

Through a press release, Franciscan this week sounded ready to jump at the chance to merger with the Enumclaw facility. “Our organizations share a commitment to excellence that could be the cornerstone for a strong partnership that would benefit the community for generations to come, said Joe Wilczek, president and chief executive officer of the non-profit Franciscan Health System. “We are honored to explore this partnership to better serve the residents of southeast King and northeast Pierce counties.”

Popp said mergers between smaller hospitals and larger operations are an ongoing trend in the healthcare industry, primarily due to the high cost of building or maintaining facilities. The Tacoma-based Franciscan system is affiliated with the Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives, one of the largest faith-based health organizations in the United States.

Kevin Hanson can be reached at khanson@courierherald.com.

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