Highmark grows W.Pa. network of medical sites

| Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012, 12:43 a.m.

An office building for physicians in Murrysville, expected to open in September, is the first of a network of medical buildings that Highmark Inc. intends to establish in Western Pennsylvania.

The state's largest health insurer gave West Penn Allegheny Health System $2 million to complete interior construction of the offices, which will house independent practices of physical therapists and plastic surgeons, West Penn Allegheny obstetrics and gynecology and primary care practices, and rotating specialty practices such as endocrinology, dermatology, neurosurgery, orthopedics and cardiology, said Dan Laurent, West Penn Allegheny spokesman.

“The goal is to ultimately evolve the facility into a community wellness center that will promote healthy lifestyles through preventive and occupational health programs,” Laurent said.

Highmark is in the process of trying to acquire West Penn Allegheny in a $475 million deal as it builds a $1 billion integrated health system to compete with UPMC, the dominant hospital and physician network in Western Pennsylvania.

While the Tribune-Review and other news media have reported that Highmark will build 10 medical malls throughout the region, Highmark spokesman Aaron Billger said the insurer plans to establish three distinct types of medical-services buildings that will vary by the services they offer and the needs of the communities in which they're located.

The types include physician offices, like the one opening in Murrysville; ambulatory centers, such as West Penn Allegheny's outpatient center in Peters that houses doctors' offices, imaging and diagnostics, cancer treatment and outpatient surgery; and medical malls, which Billger declined to describe.

“We're going to have an unveiling of that concept soon,” he said of the medical malls.

Highmark has spent $32 million in acquiring property in Cranberry, Pine, Ross, Monroeville and South Strabane through a handful of shell companies.

While a medical mall can mean different things to different people, the Johnston Medical Mall in Smithfield, N.C., offers patients a cancer center, rehabilitation services, a medical supply shop, an imaging center, a hearing aid store, a hospice and home care, a pharmacy, a cafeteria, a cyber cafe and an early learning center. It even encourages “mall walkers” to use the facility, according to its website.

“Medical malls are the Wal-Marts of the health care field,” according to Healthcare Realty Development Co., a Kansas-based firm that specializes in physician recruitment and real estate development for health care organizations.

In addition to buying private physician practices and hospitals, Highmark has started ProtoCo Supply Chain Partners, a subsidiary that manages purchasing of hospital supplies, equipment and pharmaceuticals.

And it is working with MedExpress Urgent Care, a West Virginia company that operates more than 40 urgent care centers in Pennsylvania. Highmark and MedExpress have partnered to open an urgent care center in Braddock at the site of a hospital shuttered by UPMC in 2010. And Highmark purchased MedExpress' Washington County land acquisition subsidiary earlier this year.

The 22,000-square-foot medical professional building in Murrysville is owned by a partnership of doctors led by Mark Rubino, chief medical officer of Forbes Regional Hospital, the Monroeville hospital owned by West Penn Allegheny.

Forbes will lease 11,000 square feet in the building for its doctor offices, Laurent said, under an arrangement the hospital struck with Rubino prior to his hiring by Forbes. “The facility is also completely in line with the model of health care delivery that Highmark is establishing for its integrated provider network,” Laurent said. “High-quality, patient-centric care conducted in a setting that is convenient and cost-effective and that promotes wellness and disease prevention.”

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