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North Carolina health systems spar over Research Triangle physicians, patients

Two healthcare networks in North Carolina’s competitive Research Triangle are waging a sometimes-heated battle for affiliations with local physician practices.

Raleigh-based WakeMed Health & Hospitals announced Monday that it has secured partnerships with three physician practices – Carolina Cardiology Associates, the Holly Springs Medical Group and the North Wake Cardio Vascular Center – adding 13 physicians to the 156-member Wake Specialty Physicians network.

Combined with WakeMed’s October agreement with Raleigh Cardiology, the network now boasts 17 certified cardiologists.

The announcement comes on the heels of a significant loss for WakeMed, an 870-bed network that primarily serves Wake and Johnson counties. Two months ago, Chapel Hill-based UNC Health Care announced an affiliation with Wake Heart & Vascular Associates, a cardiology practice that had long had an affiliation with WakeMed. That news prompted an angry response from WakeMed officials, which accused the state-owned healthcare system of using “predatory” tactics to attract physicians and patients in Wake County.

Last month, WakeMed officials questioned whether UNC Health Care was using taxpayer money “to unnecessarily duplicate and shift services and gain an unfair competitive advantage over WakeMed, other hospitals and physician practices throughout the community.”

“We believe that leaders of our state – including the General Assembly, the governor and the leadership of the university system and UNC Health Care – need to carefully consider whether public money should be used to compete with a strong system like WakeMed, which plays a critical role in providing vital healthcare services to Wake County and the entire state,” said Bill Atkinson, WakeMed’s president and CEO. “While competition is healthy, these recent actions are not enhancing access or adding new physicians to meet demand, but are instead shifting and duplicating existing services, which is not good for the community.”

WakeMed officials further pointed out that the state may soon have to take drastic steps to balance its budget, which is facing a $3.7 billion deficit for the coming year, and that UNC officials have floated the idea of closing one of the system’s campuses among its plans to cut spending by as much as 15 percent.

UNC officials, in response, said they were ramping up efforts to improve healthcare services throughout the state, especially in Wake County. They recently announced expansion plans for Rex Healthcare, the Raleigh-based hospital system that has been part of UNC Health Care since 2000.

“The claims that we are ‘predatory’ and seeking to ‘take over’ WakeMed are completely unfounded,” said UNC Health Care spokesperson Jennifer James in a recent interview with the Carolina Journal. “Physicians are approaching us because they want to work with UNC and Rex. Our guiding philosophy has been to partner with the best physicians in a community and to ensure that we get patient to the right care at the right time.”

The war of words prompted officials from both systems to hold a closed-door meeting shortly before Christmas. Neither side commented on the results of the meeting, which was held to explore “how the two organizations could work together.”

“WakeMed is … the state’s leading provider of cardiac services. Linking cardiology practices closer to the WakeMed Heart Center is a win for patients in our community because direct relationships between cardiologists and hospitals allow for better coordination of patient care,” said Susan Weaver, WakeMed’s senior vice president of medical affairs and physician practices.