SVMC emergency room

The emergency department at the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington, seen in 2020.

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We are responding to Don Keelan’s recent commentary on the proposed affiliation and integration agreement for Southwestern Vermont Health Care to become a member of the Dartmouth Health System.

The commentary contained factual errors and did not focus on the key benefit of the transaction, which is the expansion of health care services that can be provided locally to our patients. The arrangement calls for SVHC to maintain its local board, and includes the retention of existing property and other assets. Importantly, the commentary misstated the facts around the use of donations to SVHC. The fact is that funds that are raised locally through the SVHC Foundation remain under the control of SVHC’s governance and will continue to be spent for the benefit of our patients and the communities we serve. Continued control over funds raised in our area has always been viewed by the SVHC board as an essential part to any integration with Dartmouth Health, and the agreement provides for such control.

By supporting the expansion of health care services in our region, the agreement will allow our community members to stay closer to home to meet their health needs. Plans are being developed in collaboration with Dartmouth Health to enhance and expand clinical specialty services, recruit additional providers (both physicians and associate providers), develop a primary care residency program for southern Vermont, create new mental health programs and bring added state of the art technology (including the EPIC medical records system, which will provide patients with comprehensive records easily accessible to Dartmouth Health hospitals) to our local region. In short, the financial resources and intellectual capital of Dartmouth Health will help to further strengthen SVHC.

The commentary also omitted discussion of important industrywide threats that all smaller, rural health care institutions are facing. One only needs to look back a few years ago to the bankruptcy and closing of the acute care hospital in North Adams, Mass., to understand the clear and present danger that hospitals nationwide and their boards are confronting. According to the American Hospital Association, since 2010, 136 rural hospitals have closed across the country, with a record 20 occurring in 2020 alone.

For the past 15 years, the SVHC board has worked proactively on reviewing options to maintain the long-term sustainability and growth of our local health care system. They have consulted with national, regional and statewide experts to assess the best strategies for organizational success. Under their fiduciary stewardship, SVHC has attained nationwide recognition for clinical excellence, community collaboration and financial stability. Through a broad-based strategic planning process, the board approved a clinical affiliation with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in 2012, which has served as a precursor for our upcoming membership agreement within Dartmouth Health.

Clearly, these are challenging times in health care, and there are never guarantees of success, but the SVHC board has carefully and diligently analyzed a broad array of options. We are confident that a strong relationship with Dartmouth Health is the best option for maintaining a sustainably high quality, local health care system for the future.

Kathy Fisher is chair of the Southwestern Vermont Health Care Board of Trustees. Tom Dee is president and CEO of SVHC.


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