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Porter Medical Center directors endorse affiliation with UVM Health Network; one hurdle left

MIDDLEBURY — The Porter Medical Center (PMC) and University of Vermont Health Network (UVMHN) boards on Thursday voted unanimously to sign an affiliation agreement, a move that would result in reduced independence for Addison County’s hospital but net it greater financial stability, some key capital improvements and a more diverse menu of health care services for local patients.
Thursday’s board votes were a monumental step, but the affiliation move still hinges on some changes to Porter’s organizational bylaws.
Those changes must be approved by voting members of the PMC corporation at the organization’s annual meeting on March 15. Officials are not anticipating a negative vote, as the prospect of affiliation with UVMHN has drawn mostly positive comments during a series of public meetings during the past year at which the merger idea was unfurled.
Porter CEO Dr. Fred Kniffin, in a statement confirming Thursday’s vote, called it an “important milestone.”
“I don’t need to tell you all how big this is, how exciting this is for Porter,” Kniffin said. “We are going to keep all that is great about Porter — our staff, our services, our patients — and add to this the resources and expertise which a tertiary care center can bring to bear. The result is going to be a robust Porter, providing the greatest quality and quantityof service as possible for our community for many years to come. Thank you all for your ongoing support. It’s almost time to celebrate.”
Assuming a positive vote on the bylaws changes next month, Porter will officially fall under the UVMHN umbrella, which already includes the University of Vermont Medical Center (formerly known as Fletcher Allen Health Care); Alice Hyde Medical Center in Malone, N.Y.; Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin; Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh, N.Y.; and Elizabethtown (N.Y.) Community Hospital.
Porter Medical Center includes the hospital, Helen Porter Healthcare & Rehabilitation and 12 physicians’ offices throughout  Addison County.
Porter leaders selected UVMHN last August from a list of four prospective affiliates.
Porter began exploring a partnership with a larger medical institution in wake of recent budget difficulties that 13 months ago triggered a round of layoffs. Ongoing changes in the health care industry are making it increasingly hard for small community hospitals, like Porter, to survive. An affiliation agreement means PMC will no longer compete with UVM Medical Center for patients. Rather, the two institutions will enjoy a symbiotic relationship.
Addison County patients will continue to be served locally. But UVM will enhance local care by lending the services of some of its specialists, thereby saving local patients trips to Chittenden County. UVM Medical Center has already assigned Dr. Diana Barnard to PMC to provide palliative care.
And Porter will, in the near future, see some very prominent byproducts of its close relationship with UVMHN: A new medical office building and an upgrade to an “Epic” electronic medical records system.
The new building has tentatively been pegged at between $30 million and $40 million, Kniffin said recently.
The Epic upgrade will represent “a significant investment, in the millions of dollars,” Porter spokesman Ron Hallman said on Friday.
“Without getting into the details, I can say that leaders of the UVMHN have gone above and beyond to commit significant resources to both improving our current system and to getting us live on the Epic network as soon as possible given the magnitude and complexity of this network-wide roll out,” Kniffin said in his statement. Kniffin anticipates the upgrade would take a few years to complete.
Dr. John Brumsted, president and chief executive officer of UVMHN and CEO of the UVM Medical Center, provided the following statement to the Independent:
“We are very pleased with the action the Porter Board took last evening and look forward to the great opportunities ahead to enhance the care we can all provide to the residents of Addison County.”
If affiliation becomes official next month, Porter will place one of its own board members on the UVMHN board, which in turn will gain a spot on PMC’s panel. UVMHN will have final say on major financial decisions for PMC, as well as in the future hiring of Porter’s president/CEO.
Porter will need to implement some “branding” changes to its logos, signs, employee nametags, uniforms and stationery. For example, the new Porter sign might read, “The University of Vermont Health Network, Porter Medical Center.”
Kniffin said affiliation won’t become official until after the bylaw changes and other contractual details are tended to.
“Like buying a house, nothing is official or complete until after the ‘closing,’ which we expect to take place in April,” Kniffin said.
PMC Board Chairwoman Maureen McLaughlin on Thursday praised her Porter colleagues for their collective efforts in working toward affiliation.
“Tonight we envision what we might be able to achieve with this step,” she said through a written statement. “We worry what we wouldn’t be able to achieve without it. Nothing comes without risk. This is an opportunity to enrich this campus and community, to enhance and increase the services we provide, to bring synergy with our largest health care neighbor, and to provide the foundation for Porter to better navigate the challenges ahead. I thank you for your thoroughness on this process and for your vote. You have the potential to help strengthen Porter’s legacy.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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