BY MOLLY ROSBACH
YAKIMA, Wash. -- After almost 40 years as an independent cardiology center -- the only one in town -- the Yakima Heart Center on Monday announced a new partnership with Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital.
The "alignment," as Heart Center medical director Dr. Roger Vielbig calls it, means that while the Heart Center leases the building from Memorial, the hospital will own the equipment used for nuclear imaging, echocardiography, diagnostics and several other services. Heart Center physicians and staff will remain an independent practice.
It's a confusing shift, but patients won't really notice a difference, said Vielbig and Memorial CEO Rick Linneweh at a joint news conference Monday morning.
There will be new signs at the Heart Center and a "more visible presence of Memorial" because of state Department of Health requirements, a news release said.
If patients are receiving screenings or tests that are simply performed by Heart Center staff, they will be billed by the Heart Center; if they are tested in the cardiovascular imaging center with Memorial equipment, the billing will come from the hospital.
Heart Center cardiologists will continue to practice at both Memorial and Yakima Regional Medical and Cardiac Center, depending on the preference of their patients for where they receive their care. Losing that independence as a cardiology practice would have been a dealbreaker, Vielbig said.
"We have to serve both hospitals in Yakima. We can't just be employed by one hospital," said Vielbig, who has practiced cardiology here for 30 years. "It's really unfair for patients to have to change doctors when they go to the hospital ... We need to provide that continuity."
The Heart Center approached both hospitals in town about the possibility of a partnership. Memorial has been working with the practice over the last year to work out the details.
In Seattle, Vielbig said, the big hospitals have had cardiology groups working for them for years.
"With the changes that have occurred in the way cardiology has been funded, specifically from the federal government, groups have said, 'We can't make it on our own. We have to have the help of hospitals to do that,' " he explained.
The Heart Center has managed to run efficiently, Vielbig said, so its physicians don't need to be hospital employees, but the partnership with Memorial offers a level of stability so they can continue providing care in the Yakima Valley.
In the past year, Linneweh said, "As cardiologists come into the community to look to see whether or not they want to practice here, it has been very reassuring to them to know (about) this relationship so that there is security and stability for the future."
Vielbig said the Heart Center has recruited two new cardiologists to the practice since it started working on the deal, and are in talks with three other candidates. The center currently has 11 active physicians and six midlevel practitioners.
The new partnership should also provide better communication between the hospital and the Heart Center about patients who receive care in both facilities, which in turn will improve patient outcomes, Linneweh and Vielbig said.
"It continues our effort towards the integration of health care with primary care and specialists, hospitals, rehab, outpatient settings, etc.," Linneweh said.
Several big changes in health care and how it's funded and reimbursed will depend on whether or not the Supreme Court upholds the Affordable Care Act. A ruling is likely due Thursday, but Vielbig says they wanted to be "proactive, not reactive" in the face of those changes.
"We don't want to be left behind," he said.