WellStar, West Georgia set merger date

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 16, 2016

By Tyler H. Jones



LaGRANGE — West Georgia Health is slated to sign a merger agreement with WellStar Health System on March 7, WGH’s CEO announced Monday.

During a meeting of WGH’s board, WGH CEO Jerry Fulks told members a signing ceremony and reception will mark the occasion, but final approval must still come from the state attorney general’s office. That approval is expected to come by the end of this week or early next week, an attorney for WGH said.

WellStar is a $2 billion company with five metro-Atlanta hospitals and a network of health care providers serving 1.4 million people. Its partnership with WGH could help reduce the local health care providers’ overhead costs, bring in new specialty physicians and provide cash for capital improvements, such as a renovated cancer center, according to Jan. 20 public hearing testimony by to David McMillan, a financial consultant who prepared a community benefit report submitted to the state attorney general’s office on behalf of WGH.

WellStar’s CEO, Candice Saunders, is in LaGrange today to address the LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce and was present at Monday’s WGH board meeting. She said she’s “excited and ready to go” forward with the merger.

“It’s been a great day,” Saunders told board members. “I’ve had the chance to meet with nursing leaders, senior services representatives, and I’m very interested to see what we can do together to work on population health management.”

While the signatures are expected to be on paper March 7, the agreement won’t take effect until April 1 because of accounting issues. Saunders said at first, patients likely won’t notice much in the way of changes at WGH.

Fulks told board members that community surveys indicated the name “WellStar West Georgia Medical Center” would be a practical and recognizable name for the hospital on Vernon Road, although Saunders said signage is still “to be determined,” and would be based on community surveys and input.

Down the road, though, patients will likely notice big changes.

WellStar has pledged $84 million in capital investments at WGH over the next seven years, $30 million of which would be spent in the first two years to renovate the Enoch Callaway Cancer Clinic. Down the line, less visible but equally important investments such as conversions of payroll and electronic medical records software would be made, officials have said.

The brick-and-mortal hospital will continue to be owned by the LaGrange-Troup County Hospital Authority, which currently leases it to WGH. After the merger’s approval from the state attorney general’s office, WellStar would become the new lessee.

WGH is Troup County’s third-largest employer and provides about 1,400 jobs. Saunders has previously promised her organization would work to be an “employer of choice,” and that “our people are our greatest asset.” Under previous negotiations, WellStar has pledge not to lay off any employees for the first six months if the merger is approved. Beyond that, the health system would evaluate future needs and make adjustments as it deems necessary.

The merger comes after more than a year of negotiations and searching by WGH. In the beginning, WGH solicited partnerships from more than two dozen hospital systems and eventually narrowed it down to three health systems: two nonprofit and one for-profit.

Mike Patton, chairman of the WGH board, said the process was done thoughtfully and he believes WGH and WellStar are proper matches.

“Two years ago, I couldn’t have imagined we’d be where we are today,” he said.

Tyler H. Jones is a reporter with LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2155.