An organization formed to fight University of Missouri Health Care’s acquisition of SSM St. Mary’s—Jefferson City hired a prominent lobbying firm last week in an effort to thwart possible enabling legislation and has $100,000 in pledges to back its pay, two representatives said Friday.

The goal of A Coalition for Choice, formed Nov. 20, is to prevent MU Health, which also has a significant stake in Capital Region Medical Center, from having direct or indirect control of all hospital care in Jefferson City, attorney Hallie Gibbs and communications consultant Connie Farrow said in an interview.

They said they expect higher prices, a possible consolidation of specialty care in Columbia and higher costs for insurance.

“That’s pretty much it,” Gibbs said. “That’s the bottom line. Having a monopoly just does not work according to the national data and studies and all the information we have seen. We do not believe it would be good for our community.”

MU Health and SSM Health announced in August they were engaged in exclusive negotiations for the sale of SSM’s Jefferson City and Audrain County hospitals to the university. The sale will likely become a subject for legislative debate because it seems likely the university will need an exemption from antitrust laws to protect the deal from regulators.

MU Health and Boone Hospital Center broke off exclusive negotiations for the Boone Hospital lease in January because they could not agree as legislative deadlines for filing such a bill loomed.

In a Q&A paper issued along with the announcement, MU Health stated it did not anticipate any changes in insurance contracts or to increase hospital charges.

“We do not anticipate any significant increases in the cost of care,” MU Health spokeswoman Jesslyn Chew said Friday.

The timeline for completing a deal is uncertain, Chew said.

Under its arrangement with Capital Region, MU Health has a great deal of control over the hospital’s business.

“The University of Missouri Columbia Medical Alliance, of which the university is the sole member, has the right to approve certain Capital Region Medical Center decisions, including the appointment of the Capital Region Medical Center president,” Chew wrote in an email.

The coalition, formed as a not-for-profit, has taken $20,000 in donations and received $100,000 in pledges, Farrow said. That has allowed it to hire Gamble and Schlemeier, one of the major lobbying firms, and purchase ads in several central Missouri newspapers, including the Tribune.

The lobbyists began their work by contacting SSM and MU Health to discuss the status of the negotiations.

“Hopefully we can get some discussions going there and learn a little bit more about what their strategy is and how we can respond to that,” she said.

The coalition hasn’t created a formal role of membership, but it has been contacted by more than 100 people, including business leaders and medical providers, Farrow said.

One of the puzzling aspects of SSM’s decision is it did not make its problems with operating losses known to the community, Gibbs said. In his practice at Gibbs, Pool and Turner P.C., he specializes in legal affairs of physicians, he said. SSM Regional Health Services, the legal entity operating hospitals in Jefferson City and Maryville, reported a combined operating loss of $23.7 million in 2016. The Maryville hospital is under negotiation for sale to Mosaic Life Care, based in St. Joseph.

“Especially with St. Mary’s being such a huge player in the community, over 100 years, and to have no discussions with the community about what their problems are, what they need to fix, what their goal is, what they want to do,” he said. “It is real surprising that they didn’t reach out, when you think about it.”

SSM is not providing any information about the negotiations with MU Health, spokesman Brian Westrich wrote in an email. SSM is committed to maintaining quality care in Jefferson City and Mexico, he wrote.

“We continue to believe that transitioning ownership to MU Health Care, which is already providing high-quality care in the region, will best serve the people of Jefferson City and Mexico, Mo., and the surrounding communities,” he wrote.

MU Health can provide the full range of medical care needed in the region, he wrote.

“This transition would also create new opportunities for MU Health Care to train more physicians, nurses and other health professionals to care for patients throughout Missouri – especially those in underserved, rural areas,” he wrote.

MU Health has launched a provider network product for the private market that provides lower costs through a network that only includes MU-branded services. The Columbia hospitals and directly owned services surpassed $1 billion in patient revenue and $100 million in operating surplus in the most recent fiscal year.

In the immediate region, only smaller hospitals in Boonville, Moberly and Fulton, as well as Boone Hospital, will remain outside MU Health’s influence if the deal goes through.

“Our intent is to create an integrated health system in mid-Missouri,” Chew wrote.

The coalition is focused on possible legislation and public awareness, Gibbs and Farrow said. They are opposed to the deal because it creates a single provider for Jefferson City hospital services, not because it is the university, he said.

“It’s not because it’s them,” Gibbs said. “We have great appreciation for the university and all that they do, but if it was any other hospital we would not want there to be a monopoly of health care in Jefferson City.”

rkeller@columbiatribune.com

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