By Will Ferniany and Tony Petelos
As leaders of Jefferson County and the medical mission at the UAB Health System, we believe it is vital for Jefferson County residents to know why our organizations are discussing a new way to provide care for Cooper Green patients.
Jefferson County is not abandoning its responsibility to provide health care for Cooper Green patients. We have a legal obligation to provide this care, and we take it seriously. The proposal under consideration would place this care under the management of an institution with the expertise and resources to deliver better services. There is tremendous need for Cooper Green in our community, and this agreement will help the county best utilize limited Indigent Care Fund dollars in the most efficient and effective manner.
The Jefferson County Commission asked county management more than a year ago to open formal talks with UAB about possibly assuming operations at Cooper Green. This came after an extensive study by outside experts. UAB provides modern, world-class health care and has been the county’s primary partner in serving Cooper Green patients for years. Operating Cooper Green to support the county and the patients is not something UAB needs to do; UAB is offering to do this because it is the right thing to do.
Our discussions have been guided by a shared commitment to the residents of Jefferson County and the patients at Cooper Green. UAB’s resources, expertise and buying power will create efficiencies and opportunities that will allow for more effective investment in patient care and wellness.
UAB’s management of Cooper Green would provide positive opportunities for the county, as well as Cooper Green patients and employees. We still have to work through some details, including how Cooper Green employees will transition to the UAB authority, taking into consideration employment and advancement opportunities, salaries, benefits and pensions. These details will be discussed in the due diligence period over the next six months.
The health and best interests of Cooper Green patients are the primary reasons Jefferson County and UAB entered into discussions. We will move forward only if we are confident the arrangement will improve the health and wellness of Cooper Green patients in a sustainable way, and it is in the best interest of the citizens of Jefferson County. UAB has operated other authorities for years to benefit the patients of Montgomery and western Jefferson County.
Some have criticized the agreement approved by the County Commission this month as giving UAB too much control of the board that would govern the authority. It is reasonable for UAB to have majority control of the board because – at the county’s request – UAB is accepting medical and financial risks associated with care of patients enrolled in Cooper Green. UAB is also working with the county to ensure that the indigent care funds are maximized to the best use of Cooper Green patients.
This does not mean that UAB is “taking over” Cooper Green and the county will be stripped of oversight. What we are discussing is essentially a management agreement. If at any time the county feels the arrangement is not benefiting Cooper Green patients, it could terminate the agreement and resume full control.
We are confident, though, that the arrangement will benefit Cooper Green patients tremendously. The agreement is being structured in a way that makes it in UAB’s interests to improve the overall health and wellness of Cooper Green patients. UAB is incentivized to keep Cooper Green patients as healthy as possible – not just to treat them when they’re sick, but to help them maintain their health with regular preventive and wellness care.
The authority agreement also would address the sorely outdated Cooper Green facility, which no longer provides an ideal setting for modern health care. The proposed agreement allows for a new facility to be built for Cooper Green patients. The arrangement would ensure fair market value would be paid to the county for the property, and also would allow construction to take place without adding to the county’s debt — a solution that benefits Cooper Green patients and the county. In addition, if UAB is no longer managing the authority, the new building would revert back to the county to continue operations.
While Cooper Green patients will have access to this new, modern facility, the authority agreement with the UAB Health System would still allow Cooper Green patients to receive their care at other locations as they have in the past — which has been another misconception about the proposal.
This process has played out in public meetings, and the public will continue to be informed and involved in these discussions. In the months ahead, we will seek to have conversations with stakeholders, including Cooper Green employees, patients, other health care providers and residents of Jefferson County.
UAB and the county are committed to Cooper Green patients, and we will keep their best interests at the forefront throughout this process. We all recognize the importance of Cooper Green to our community, and our goal is to create a sustainable model for providing better health care to our constituents, patients and neighbors who are served by Cooper Green.
Will Ferniany is CEO of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Health System. Tony Petelos is Jefferson County Manager and CEO.