Baptist Health Starts to Put Its Mark on Old Sparks Turf

Baptist Health of Little Rock finalized its purchase of Sparks Regional Medical Center in Fort Smith and Sparks Medical Center in Van Buren on Nov. 1.
Baptist Health of Little Rock finalized its purchase of Sparks Regional Medical Center in Fort Smith and Sparks Medical Center in Van Buren on Nov. 1. (Corey S. Krasko)
Baptist Health of Little Rock finalized its purchase of Sparks Regional Medical Center in Fort Smith and Sparks Medical Center in Van Buren on Nov. 1.
Baptist Health of Little Rock finalized its purchase of Sparks Regional Medical Center in Fort Smith and Sparks Medical Center in Van Buren on Nov. 1.

The signage at the hospitals in Fort Smith and Van Buren has been changed from Sparks to Baptist Health, and now Troy Wells and his colleagues will find out the answers to their questions.

Wells is the CEO and president of Baptist Health of Little Rock, which acquired Sparks Regional Medical Center in Fort Smith and Sparks Medical Center in Van Buren in a transaction that was finalized Nov. 1. Wells said that any time Baptist Health considers an acquisition in a new community, the executives and board of directors ask three important questions.

The first question relates to whether the expansion fulfills Baptist Health’s nonprofit, religious-based mission in medical care. The second and third questions are more nuts and bolts: Will Baptist Health help the community, and will the community help Baptist Health?

“Can we help them or not is question No. 2,” Wells said. “Question No. 3 is, if we do that expansion, can they make a positive contribution to Baptist Health? No. 2 and No. 3 are really my expectations. We are going to make things better and it is going to perform and make a positive contribution to the community and to Baptist Health.”

Baptist Health’s entrance into the River Valley was welcomed by Fort Smith city officials. City Administrator Carl Geffken said he met with Baptist officials during the lead-up to the sale and found the executives focused on the community.

“It will be a very good development for the city,” Geffken said. “They’re well-established in Arkansas. From the discussions I’ve had, they want to be a part of this community and help those who need it from all sections of Fort Smith. I really think they will be a wonderful addition to the city.”

Adding the two Sparks hospitals to its portfolio gives Baptist Health 11 in Arkansas. Baptist Health had a ribbon-cutting ceremony Nov. 13 to officially open the hospitals it has renamed Baptist Health-Fort Smith and Baptist Health-Van Buren.

New Docs in Town
Neither Baptist Health nor Community Health Systems in Franklin, Tennessee, which sold Sparks Health Systems to Baptist, has released the financial details of the deal. CHS, which is publicly traded, sold 39 hospitals during an 18-month period in 2017-18 for slightly less than $2 billion.

CHS acquired Sparks Health Systems — which includes the two hospitals and a network of clinics in western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma — when it purchased Health Management Associates of Naples, Florida, for $7.6 billion in 2014. HMA bought Sparks for $138 million in 2009.

It was CHS’ debt load from the purchase of HMA that led it to start shedding hospitals from its portfolio. In 2014, the same year CHS took over Sparks, Sparks Health Systems went through four full-time or interim CEOs.

Baptist Health last acquired a hospital in 2014 when it bought Hot Spring County Medical Center in Malvern.

“From a business transition perspective, hospitals don’t get to shut down and restart,” Wells said. “It is a challenge to transition ownership with hospitals, but that transition went extremely well.

“We have done this over time on several occasions. We don’t do it every year, obviously. We look for opportunities and, when we have good ones, we take them.”

Harrison Dean was named regional president of western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma to oversee the new Baptist Health hospitals. Dean said that when he had a meeting with the medical staff after the transaction he received applause, which was a career first for the 40-year health care executive.

“I would say one of the key things we can provide, and are already providing, is stability to the organization,” Dean said. “We are a health care institution that is owned and operated within the four boundaries of the state of Arkansas. We are about Arkansas.”

Geffken said the nonprofit status is an obvious difference between CHS and Baptist Health. Dean said Baptist Health’s medical mission is to look for solutions first and foremost without focusing solely on the bottom line.

“Physicians understand it is about ‘How do we meet needs locally?’” Dean said. “That approach is reinforcing to them as opposed to it being all about profitability.”

Listen & Learn
Baptist Health has only been in the River Valley for a couple of months so it is still too early for any big changes, Dean said.

Dean said he is in “listening and learning” mode while he meets with the physicians and clinicians now under the Baptist Health umbrella. He said the information-gathering should be complete later this year so Baptist Health can formulate a long-term strategy to address the region’s medical needs.

“One of the things that, as the guy on the ground, I’m trying to do is to listen and learn,” Dean said. “Part of that listening and learning is feedback from physicians on the medical staff, employees at the hospitals, community leaders, and from that listening and learning is [identifying] where are some of the gaps in the community and the region that are not being met. Some of that by default will not be met because of physician gaps in the medical staff.”

Arkansas has consistently ranked poorly in physicians per capita, and the Fort Smith area is no stranger to those struggles. Wells said Arkansas unfortunately has more underserved pockets than the River Valley.

“If you just look at health indicators in that part of the state, it is similar to other pockets in Arkansas where you have opportunities to improve,” Wells said. “That is part of our mission and purpose. The other issue about being underserved is Arkansas as a state doesn’t have enough clinical caregivers. Baptist Health has a pretty good track record at being able to attract physicians and other clinicians to our hospitals and our medical staffs. We think we will do a good job doing that same thing in Fort Smith and Van Buren.”

Dean said that Baptist Health’s entry into the market has already resulted in an increase in experienced medical professionals applying for open positions at the two hospitals. He expects more when Baptist Health decides on expansion goals within the hospital by adding new specialty care doctors.

Dean said as an added attraction Baptist Health is building child care facilities within the hospitals that should be open next month to help its employees balance the demands of work and family.

“What we hang our hat on is primarily around our mission purpose and our people; the investment in employees and culture and how we work with the medical staff is really, really important to our success,” Wells said. “That’s our playbook: take care of people, focus on the people you’re serving in the community and work really well with clinicians to make good patient care decisions.”