Allegheny Health Network to partner with Johns Hopkins medical center

| Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, 7:30 a.m.

Allegheny Health Network will partner with the world-renowned Johns Hopkins in Baltimore on cancer treatment, training and research in Western Pennsylvania, officials for the region's second-largest hospital network said on Wednesday.

The deal is expected to raise Allegheny Health Network's profile as competition for patients and insurance customers intensifies between the hospital network's owner, Highmark Inc., and UPMC, the region's dominant system of hospitals and doctors.

A link to the iconic Johns Hopkins name should boost recognition of Allegheny Health Network's cancer program, which like the broader system was inadequately marketed before Highmark's acquisition last year, said Dr. Tony Farah, the network's chief medical officer.

“The perception in the community is that if you have a cancer problem, you need to go to a certain cancer institute,” Farah said, referring to UPMC and its partner, the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.

“Our quality and outcomes data are as good or better than our competition,” he said. “And that is not a well-known fact.”

“We welcome (the competition) in the best interests of the community and look forward to competing on the basis of quality, cost and services provided to patients,” UPMC spokesman Paul Wood said.

Pitt's Cancer Institute and Johns Hopkins' Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center are two of 41 centers in the nation designated by the National Cancer Institute as comprehensive cancer centers.

The proposed five-year partnership, which should be finalized in coming months, will allow Allegheny Health doctors to consult with their Johns Hopkins counterparts, officials said at an announcement in Allegheny General Hospital in the North Side. Doctors and nurses in Western Pennsylvania will receive ongoing training from Johns Hopkins experts, and Allegheny Health patients will be able to enroll in clinical trials previously unavailable in the Pittsburgh region.

Hopkins doctors will get access to more patients for clinical trials, said Dr. William Nelson, director of the Kimmel Cancer Center.

“In the changing landscape of health care services, innovative initiatives like this will keep us at the forefront of discovery and patient-centered care,” he said.

Allegheny Health's cancer center last year treated more than 10,000 patients. In addition to cancer centers at its hospitals, the network operates 43 cancer clinics throughout the region. UPMC and Pitt's Cancer Institute treated more than 74,000 patients last year at about 40 cancer centers.

Highmark members will lose in-network access to UPMC hospitals and doctors at the end of this year because UPMC refuses to renew a reimbursement contract with the health insurer. But unique cancer treatment services, solely provided by UPMC, are among specialty services that could remain in-network for Highmark members when the contract expires.

Officials would not disclose the financial terms of the Johns Hopkins deal. Highmark, which has spent $2 billion to establish the seven-hospital Allegheny Health Network, will establish a fund to pay for cancer research and clinical projects, said Dr. David Parda, chair of Allegheny Health Network Cancer Institute.

In the short run, a connection to Johns Hopkins “adds more credence to the viability of Allegheny Health Network,” said James McTiernan, a health care consultant with Downtown benefits firm Triad Gallagher.

But key to the long-term success of the partnership is improving quality and lowering cost of cancer care in Western Pennsylvania, McTiernan said.

“At the end of the day, if using one health network is considerably less (costly) than the other, that will eventually show up in the insurance premiums,” he said. “If cost of care is significantly different, that could be a game changer.”

Officials for the health systems are discussing partnerships in other areas of medicine, though they declined to specify.

The cancer partnership does not include constructing facilities and is not an acquisition by Johns Hopkins, Allegheny Health officials said.

Aside from broad medical partnerships with two Maryland hospitals and a few international medical programs, Johns Hopkins' deal with Allegheny Health Network is a first of its kind for the Baltimore medical center.

“They're in competition with a very prestigious health system, and they need to build up their image,” said Tom Tomczyk, a health care principal with Buck Consultants, Downtown. “Not that there aren't good physicians there today, but the recognition just isn't there yet.”

Luis Fábregas and Alex Nixon are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Fábregas at 412-320-7998 or Reach Nixon at 412-320-7928 or

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