Executives from the Comprehensive Blood and Cancer Center and Bakersfield Memorial and Mercy hospitals announced Monday that they plan to enter a partnership for cancer care that will include a new inpatient unit at Mercy's downtown location and the development of a pediatric oncology program.
The announcement comes less than a week before The AIS Cancer Center at San Joaquin Community Hospital opens its doors to the public. Executives from CBCC and Memorial and Mercy hospitals were quick to say that their pending partnership was about improving patient care, not competition.
"We really welcome competition because you know whenever there's competition actually the patients benefit, and that's what we want," said Dr. Ravi Patel, CBCC's managing partner and medical director.
However, Patel added that "it's going to take a long time for (the) competition to catch up with us."
Competitor San Joaquin Community Hospital Vice President Jarrod McNaughton said the news was no surprise.
"There had been rumors for quite some time in the community about that," McNaughton said.
The partnership was announced before the legal paperwork was completed to put the rumors to rest, said Jon Van Boening, CEO and president of Memorial Hospital. The arrangement has been in the works for 18 months and the documents should be completed in the next several weeks, he said.
"This is a true partnership. This is just not words, this is just not pictures on a banner. We're really coming together as businesses," Van Boening said in his remarks at a news conference at CBCC Monday morning.
McNaughton said the new arrangement doesn't pose any threat to San Joaquin's cancer center. He said the hospital's research has shown that Kern County has a high rate of cancer cases and that many people leave the area for treatment.
"(San Joaquin Community Hospital is) going to start a startup cancer program, and I applaud them for that and I welcome them for that," Van Boeing said. "We've chosen not to start up one from scratch but rather to partner with the existing program that has serviced Bakersfield for 25 years, and that's Dr. Patel and his associates at CBCC."
The partnership will give patients access to the three health care providers' resources, including different medical technology at the separate facilities.
"We're going have to get to certain insurances and say, 'OK, we're doing this. Are we going to be able to move (patients) amongst us?' And we think the answer's gonna be, 'Yes.' I can't speak for the insurance compan(ies), but that's our intention," said Russell Judd, Mercy Hospitals' president.
For CBCC, the partnership will provide a hospital presence.
"Even though we have good people, good technology, one of the things which we've been lacking is a hospital presence," Patel said.
Other aspects of the partnership unveiled Monday include the planned inpatient cancer care unit and a new process for admitting patients at the emergency room at Mercy Hospital Downtown, which also houses the Florence R. Wheeler Cancer Center.
The cancer unit will have 10 private patient rooms on the hospital's second floor and a family room area. Patel will be the medical director for that unit.
"It will be separated and dedicated from the other patients. It will be refurbished to have state-of-the-art looks as well as state-of-the-art equipment," Judd said.
The Friends of Mercy Foundation has already raised just less than $1 million, the whole price tag for the project, Judd said. The goal is to start construction in the next 60 days and open the unit in the spring.
The emergency room process will allow cancer patients, who may be prone to infection, to register at a designated area apart from the rest of the ER traffic. That system is not yet in place, Judd said.
As for the pediatric oncology program, the administrators said such a venture was made possible with the recent opening of Memorial's pediatric intensive care unit, which can care for young cancer patients who are sick enough to need hospitalization.
Patel said representatives from UCLA will visit Dec. 12 to discuss the possibility of starting a pediatric oncology program at CBCC.
Integrated breast cancer and prostate cancer treatment programs are also in the works as part of the partnership. The partners will be investing $450,000 to $500,000 to bring technology to CBCC for MRI-guided biopsies for breast and prostate cancers and to reduce radiation treatment time, Patel said. The new gear should arrive in the next couple of months.
Margaret Johnson, the director of nursing operations for Mercy Hospitals, was excited about the news for personal reasons. Her 5-year-old grandson, Issac Pizano, has cancer and has been treated at Children's Hospital Central California in Madera for a brain tumor.
"I know from a family standpoint, how difficult it can be to be in a hospital for a long period of time in a semi-private room. This new cancer (inpatient unit is) all about the patient, and it's all about the patient's family," she said.