County officials question Prisma’s hospital merger

Prisma Health’s plan to purchase three Midlands hospitals could dilute Lexington Medical Center’s market, some County officials worry.

Some health care experts say that Prisma Health’s plan to acquire three Columbia-area hospitals represents a major challenge for Lexington Medical Center to continue providing medical care that is both affordable and known for quality.

The proposed merger threatens to put Lexington County’s hospital at a disadvantage in agreements with insurers and physicians that point Midlands residents to hospitals and clinics, according to health industry consultant Emerson Smith.

“That’s what Lexington Medical Center must fear,” Mr. Smith said.

His prediction comes as county leaders joined other communities in raising questions about Prisma’s bid to take over two Providence hospitals and another in nearby Kershaw County. The communities are asking that the acquisitions be slowed until more is known about what the impact of a takeover that one top Prisma official said assures improved medical care in the Midlands eventually.

County Council members last week asked the Federal Trade Commission and state lawmakers to look over Prisma’s plan to see if it might stifle competition too much.

That request came after a closed-door 90-minute meeting among council members and Lexington Medical Center executives last week.

“We need to understand better the ramifications of this and its impact on our hospital’s future,” Councilwoman Debra Summers of Springdale said.

Lexington Medical Center, created nearly 50 years ago, is a semi-independent operation whose board is appointed by council members. It has grown from a small local operation into a regional force in health care, Mr. Smith said. Medical facilities in Batesburg-Leesville and Gilbert are part of Lexington Medical Center. 

The proposed merger would put Greenville-based Prisma in control of five of the six largest hospitals in the Midlands, with Lexington Medical Center its only rival. Prisma manages 18 hospital across South Carolina and dozens of affiliated clinics.

So far, no one is seeking to stop the takeover, but Lexington Medical Center previously has engaged in legal and political battles with other Midlands hospitals over expansion efforts for itself and others.

Lexington Medical Center president Tod Augsburger declined to be interviewed, instead sending a statement that Prisma’s plan “raises concerns because, as they become a larger corporate conglomerate, we believe it will adversely affect access, quality and care for patients and families across the Midlands.”

Mr. Ausburger offered no further explanation.

A strategy needs to be developed to assure medical treatment remains readily available and affordable across the 758-square-mile county amid changes coming in health care, Councilman Larry Brigham of Batesburg-Leesville said. “There’s many discussions about this ahead for all of us,” he said.

West Columbia business executive James “Rick” Wheeler, chairman of the board that oversees Prisma, said the acquisition allows “options to improve quality and streamline expensive structures that are not available to us otherwise.” His comments were contained in newspaper ads published last weekend.

Hospitals are “increasingly challenged with reduced payments, increasing numbers of underinsured and uninsured patients, increased costs driven by the latest specialty drugs and clinical technology and significant regulatory and policy changes,” Mr. Wheeler said.

The takeover “creates a scale of operations that best position us in this turbulent environment,” he added. “Make no mistake about it, there are difficult choices ahead.”

Lexington Medical Center expanded services and facilities during the past five years into the northeast section of adjoining Richland County, a steadily growing suburban area whose neighborhoods are a convenient ride to the hospital’s headquarters at I-20 and U.S. 378 in West Columbia. Prisma’s merger would put its hospitals in position to serve that area better as well as Kershaw County next door.

The merger could affect Lexington Medical Center’s plans to expand as the county’s population increases. One of its major goals is open a second campus along I-20 just west of the town of Lexington in a decade to handle expected population growth.

It completed a $400 million expansion last year at its headquarters – the largest health care project in the state – to add space for maternity care and other services.

Slightly more than 500,000 persons are expected to call Lexington County home in 2050 compared to nearly 300,000 today, planners at the Central Midlands Council of Governments predict.