Eric Pianalto on Why There's No Room for Waiting for Mercy Hospital Expansion

Eric Pianalto on Why There's No Room for Waiting for Mercy Hospital Expansion
Eric Pianalto, president of Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas

Eric Pianalto has been with Mercy since 1994 and held a number of positions within Mercy’s four-state region including being chief operating officer for regional operations in Arkansas and Oklahoma. He was named president of Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas in 2013. He was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rogers and was raised in northwest Arkansas. He graduated from Springdale High School, and received his undergraduate degree from the University of Arkansas. He later earned a master’s in business administration from Webster University of St. Louis.

Hospitals have complained in the past about the lack of residency programs in Arkansas to train doctors. What will Mercy Northwest do to address that issue?

This really speaks to northwest Arkansas’ physician shortage, which isn’t just a problem for hospitals — it’s a problem for the community and for anyone in need of routine or specialty medical care. In other words, all of us.

Mercy Northwest Arkansas is proud to be part of a partnership with UAMS-Northwest and Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks to establish a new community internal medicine residency program. We welcomed our first eight residents in June. Our plan is to add eight residents each year over the next two years, so that there are 24 residents in the program by 2018. This is one important step toward resolving the area’s physician shortage because many doctors decide to practice in the same community where they complete their residency. We have a great first class of residents, so we certainly hope some of them will choose Mercy.

Why is hospital pricing so opaque? What can be done to make health care costs easier to understand?

If we could go back 50 years and start all over, we would not design the financing model for health care in the way it has evolved over that period of time. The system is complex, inconsistent from one payer source to the next, and in many cases is not an accurate reflection of the quality or cost of care that was delivered.

At Mercy, we have been working with insurance companies, Medicare and employers to change the way health care is financed. We believe this will result in a better system that will simplify the process and result in a model that is more predictable and easier to understand.

In April, Mercy Northwest announced it would invest nearly $250 million over five years to expand its Rogers campus, build clinics in underserved areas and establish an internal medicine residency program. Why are those projects necessary?

We didn’t just decide one day that it was time to expand. Mercy undertook an intensive study of community needs, led by our board of directors, that included focus groups and folded in information about population trends and health care outcomes.

Both our hospital and clinics have been serving the community at a very high capacity. What that means to the average person is that it can take longer than we would like to get you in for an appointment or to schedule your surgery. It also prevents us from adding new services we know are needed. To us, that’s not acceptable.

To make sure we continue to meet the needs of this community, we knew it was important to make a big investment so we can get out ahead of the area’s growth. The facility investment of $247 million is an eye-popping figure. But just as important is our goal to recruit 100 new physicians to the Mercy system. We’ll need 1,000 new health care workers to support them. We think this will improve health care access in the community for everyone, including those who are underserved.