Health System Integration: You Need a Plan!

by Brandon Klar

Success within population health is grounded in a health system’s collective ability to improve the health and wellness of those in its communities, and other patient groups it may serve. 

With a goal of achieving the Triple Aim, systems are restructuring their operations to strengthen the value proposition of their clinical services. With a desire to enhance access, improve quality, and control costs, many systems are looking towards formal strategic partnerships as a means to attain the necessary scope and scale to be successful.

As systems expand, they have the opportunity to achieve system-oriented efficiencies. Through both horizontal and vertical integration strategies, systems desire to position themselves within the market as high-quality and cost-effective providers to attract patients and payers. While many systems pursue these objectives, some fail to achieve full integration due to a lack of effective planning, poor management collaboration, or subpar implementation.

Regardless of the reason, a sound integration plan focused on the goals of the system and dedicated true integration will increase the odds of success.  

System Integration plans can be developed both pre-transaction and post-transaction, as well as by systems that have been operating for some time, but in more of a “loose federation” model than as a truly integrated system. Below, you will find an overview of system integration plans, the critical factors in developing them, and associated benefits and limitations.

Pre-Transaction Integration Plans

The development of pre-transaction integration plans provides the aligning entities a road map to achieve their partnership goals and objectives once the transaction is final. Developed prior to the signing of a definitive agreement, these plans serve to lay the foundation for administrative, support, clinical, and service line integration across the continuum as it relates to the location of services, management and staffing, and the optimization of non-salary resources and contracts.

Pre-transaction integration plans allow the entities to build upon their shared strategic vision and construct a newly integrated operating model by which the two entities can optimize their individual strengths and maximize their collective resources. Recognizing that each entity brings with it their unique resources and capabilities, pre-transaction planning is focused on:

  • Cataloging the collective resources and capabilities of the newly proposed system
  • Understanding the existing operating models and functional area interdependencies
  • Framing a new operating model for the integrated system functions
  • Selecting horizontal and vertical integration strategies to align operations
  • Developing action plans with clearly defined goals, resource requirements, barriers, accountable parties, and quality and cost impact analyses
  • Designing an implementation governance structure to oversee the capture of short-term wins post-transaction while coordinating for long-term integration

In addition to preparing the system for operational integration, pre-transaction integration plans can also serve a role in supporting regulatory approval of the proposed transactions by Departments of Health, Attorneys General, and the Federal Trade Commission. While the burdens of proof and detail required may vary by state and regulatory agency, these plans illustrate that the transacting parties are committed to the transaction, have a roadmap to integrate operations at a systems level, and possess a plan to reduce overall system costs. These plans have been proven helpful in demonstrating the value that can be derived by a transaction for a community, but are limited in their detail as the parties are unable to exchange competitively sensitive information prior to the transaction.

In the preparation of these pre-transaction integration plans, parties have utilized both anti-trust counsel and a system integration consulting firm to prevent undue disclosure of sensitive information and support in the development of a more meaningful integration plan.

Post-Transaction Integration Plans

Post-transaction integration plans seek to enhance the integration of entities with a system both horizontally and vertically outside of the confines and limitations of the transaction process. These plans are developed to support system operational integration at two points in a system’s journey: (1) Immediately following a transaction, and/or (2) Years post transaction to optimize a system’s operational performance.

As systems pursue integration post-transaction, they should build upon their pre-transaction plans or previously completed integration initiatives. As the parties are now able to share competitively sensitive information, the integration plans can be further refined, enhanced, and validated. To efficiently drive system integration planning and implementation, the newly formed system should:

  • Activate a system integration governance structure to oversee operational integration
  • Establish an Integration Management Office (“IMO”) in line with an integration governance structure to manage processes, team collaboration, and track progress
  • Convene functional area integration teams to drive integration plan refinement and implementation
  • Engage employee and physician stakeholders to keep them informed and solicit ideas
  • Construct a community communication plan to highlight benefits and any changes to care design and delivery

Integration plan refinement and implementation immediately following a transaction can both position the system for success, or doom it for failure. While integration planning and implementation will drive efficiency, attention must be paid to cultural alignment. Individual functional plans and strategies should have their benefits objectively weighed against the cultural or political turbulence that could result. This process requires collaboration between the integrated management teams, and will require input from both internal and external system stakeholders if the plans are to successfully drive acceptance, accountability, and alignment within the system.

Many systems fall short of achieving full integration immediately following a transaction, and thus have opportunity to further optimize system performance years later. These systems may have either decided not to pursue specific integration opportunities in fear of cultural turbulence, stakeholder resistance, or a lack of guidance, will-power or resources to do so.

Regardless of the reason, systems should reassess their degree of integration at least annually to identify new opportunities that may have arisen or determine if previous barriers to implementation or resistance to change have been mitigated. It is not uncommon for systems to achieve between 5 to 10% in sustainable, operational annual cost savings years after a transaction as a direct result of future integration plans.

As consolidation trends and cost pressures accelerate, the keys to a successful integration initiative are to focus on value creation, risk management, and employee and physician engagement in order to develop a realistic, achievable, and sustainable plan that positions the system for success. 

Brandon Klar, MHSA

Brandon Klar, MHSA

Managing Director
Greenville, South Carolina