Chief executives of Charlotte’s two competing health systems – Carolinas HealthCare System and Novant Health – have launched a first-of-its-kind partnership that appears to signal a new era after decades of sometimes bitter rivalry.
Gene Woods, who became CEO of Carolinas HealthCare in May, and Carl Armato, who has led Novant Health since 2012, have met at least a half dozen times to talk about ways their systems can collaborate to improve access to health care for under-served communities in Charlotte.
To kick-off the partnership, they invited leaders from more than 40 businesses, religious and educational institutions, local government agencies and nonprofits to meet Monday night to discuss ways “to improve the health of Charlotte’s communities whose population health status is significantly challenged.”
Neither system has committed a specific dollar amount, but both Woods and Armato said they are ready to invest resources, including money and staff, to support existing efforts or initiate new ones. The emphasis is on “distressed neighborhoods” that don’t have enough health services or access to fresh foods, and where rates of diabetes and heart disease exceed the national average.
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“This is a joint opportunity for us to unite resources that will hopefully address long-term outcomes,” Armato said.
Just talking about collaborating represents a historic shift for the two hospital systems, whose leaders have sometimes even avoided sponsoring the same community events. Divisions have been deep, with long-lasting ramifications. For example, in the late 1990s, a group of pediatric specialists encouraged the two systems to band together in support of a freestanding children’s hospital for Charlotte. But they couldn’t agree about where it would be located, among other things. Novant went ahead with expansion of its Hemby Children’s Hospital wing, and Carolinas HealthCare built its own Levine Children’s Hospital.
The change in attitude corresponds with the arrival of Woods, a hospital executive from Texas. He replaced Michael Tarwater, who retired in June after more than 30 years with Carolinas HealthCare, 14 as the chief executive.
During Tarwater’s tenure, the organization grew to become one of the largest public health systems in the country, with annual net operating revenue of $9 billion in 2015. Novant Health, based in Winston-Salem, has annual operating revenue of $4 billion.
In a joint phone call with the Observer before Monday’s meeting, Armato ascribed the new cooperative spirit to “a little bit of growing, and history that both organizations had to overcome.”
“It’s our duty … to find a way to integrate the aubergine and teal around the needs of the city,” he said, referring to colors in the system logos – aubergine and gray for Novant, teal for Carolinas HealthCare. “It’s not about which organization wins. … It’s about us both winning.”
Woods and Armato said they called Monday’s meeting so they could first hear from community leaders about what they need and what is already being done. “We don’t come with solutions,” Woods said. “We’ve got to start by listening to the communities, because sustainability is created in part by them being fully engaged in making their own neighborhoods better.”
As a newcomer to Charlotte, Woods said he’s been impressed at the number of “phenomenal not-for-profits doing good work” to increase health care access. “It’s just that there’s a sense that it’s not always aligned and it’s not all driven towards a specific outcome,” Woods said.
“It is in many ways like a tale of two cities,” he said, with pockets of poverty and need, sometimes hidden by the prosperous parts of Charlotte. “The challenges are too big for any one organization to solve by themselves.”
Armato added: “We need to figure out how to get people to the right place at the right time so they can get the care they need to prevent and slow down some of the progress of these diseases, particularly diabetes and heart disease.
“When we set goals,” Armato said, “our two organizations are two of the best in the industry at delivering. … We’re going to have the opportunity to truly transform these communities in unprecedented ways.”