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N.H.’s Catholic Medical Center to explore ‘partnership’ with HCA Healthcare

Catholic Medical Center, a nonprofit hospital and regional health system based in Manchester that was the subject of a Boston Globe Spotlight investigation, has signed a non-binding letter of intent with HCA to explore a partnership.

Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, N.H.Erin Clark / Globe Staff

CONCORD, N.H. — Catholic Medical Center is pursuing an agreement for its acquisition by HCA Healthcare, a for-profit healthcare provider headquartered in Nashville, Tenn., CMC leadership announced Wednesday.

HCA operates 182 hospitals and 2,300 “care sites” in 20 states and the United Kingdom, according to its website. That includes three hospitals in New Hampshire: Parkland Medical Center in Derry, Frisbie Memorial Hospital in Rochester, and Portsmouth Regional Hospital in Portsmouth.

Catholic Medical Center, a nonprofit hospital and regional health system based in Manchester, signed a non-binding letter of intent with HCA.

“CMC and HCA Healthcare have agreed to explore a partnership that would enable us to continue providing high-quality Catholic health care to our community for generations to come,” CMC President and CEO Alex Walker said in the statement.

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In an email obtained by the Globe, he told employees the letter of intent comes as part of the hospital’s year-long “partner selection process.”

Walker said the hospital considered many potential partners over the past year, both Catholic and non-Catholic, “and found HCA to be the best fit for CMC and our vision for the future.”

He assured hospital employees that HCA would “maintain CMC’s strong Catholic identity in adherence to the ERDs.”

ERDs, or Ethical and Religious Directives of Catholic health care services, “reaffirm the Church’s teaching about the dignity of the human person” as well as provide guidance on moral issues specific to Catholic health care, according to HSHS Wisconsin.

“The parties engaged in this endeavor are fully immersed in the process to provide an authentic reflection of the Catholic identity and excellent care that has been provided to the community over the past 131 years,” said Reverend Peter A. Libasci, Bishop of Manchester in a statement about the development.

Leaders from the two health care systems said they intend to continue providing charity care to those who cannot afford health care services.

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Dr. Weldon Sanford, chief of pathology at CMC, said staff are still processing the news.

“It’s a little scary and exciting at the same time,” he said.

“I want this institution to thrive,” he said, adding that HCA might have resources to invest in needed facility upgrades that have been lacking for the past decade. “They can come in with a lot of money and build,” he said.

“If HCA can come in and make us stronger, I’m all for it. I wish we could stay independent, but given the state of things I’m not sure that’s possible,” he said.

The announcement said the “partnership” would also “enhance the immediate and long-term financial viability of CMC.”

The hospital has faced extensive financial and leadership challenges in recent months, including a series of departures by executives. In August, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the hospital’s bond rating to Ba1 negative – or “junk bond” status – reporting that its “weak operating performance has driven cash declines and reduced financial flexibility.”

In June, a report from an outside law firm commissioned by Catholic Medical Center concluded that leaders there had missed numerous “early warning signal[s]” in handling challenges involving Dr. Yvon Baribeau, a troubled former top heart surgeon at the hospital. The report, which came in the wake of a Boston Globe Spotlight Team series last September, found serious problems with quality management, a breakdown in trust between doctors and hospital leadership, and failures by both members of the board of trustees and top executives in addressing concerns about Baribeau, who has amassed one of the worst surgical malpractice records in the United States.

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The Spotlight series revealed that Baribeau has 21 malpractice settlements connected to his work at the hospital, including 14 cases in which he was accused of contributing to patients’ deaths. Hospital executives also knew for years how dangerous the surgeon had become, but let him continue to practice, the Globe reported.

The latest announcement involving HCA Healthcare also comes amid an ongoing investigation by New Hampshire’s Office of Professional Licensure and Certification into whether former Catholic Medical Center administrators endangered public safety by failing to report problems with Baribeau to the New Hampshire Board of Medicine.

Hospital leadership described a lengthy process ahead before an agreement is finalized. It will involve due diligence, negotiating final terms, and receiving necessary approvals, they said.

CMC is licensed to operate 330 hospital beds, with more than 400 affiliated medical providers and more than 3,000 employees, according to its website.

In his email to staff, Walker said there are three employee forums scheduled this week, and encouraged employees to ask questions.

Rebecca Ostriker of the Globe staff contributed to this report. This article has been updated to note that HCA Healthcare is a for-profit organization.


Amanda Gokee can be reached at amanda.gokee@globe.com. Follow her @amanda_gokee.