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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, June 30, 2019 1:00 am

IU Health's local goal: Greater access to care

KEVIN LEININGER | kleininger@news-sentinel.com

Brian Bauer figures building a health care system is a lot like building a house: you start with a solid foundation and add one level at a time.

IU Health's presence in Fort Wayne has followed that pattern since the Indianapolis-based network announced its intent to enter the already competitive market in October 2017. A Riley Children's Hospital on Cook Road had been announced a month earlier, and that was followed in July of last year by the opening of a primary care clinic at West Jefferson Boulevard and Engle Road. Another primary care office will open in July at 10215 Auburn Park Drive and ground was broken this month on a 25,000-square-foot urgent-care and laboratory facility at Stellhorn and Lahmeyer roads.

But that's only the beginning, said Bauer, former CEO of Lutheran Health Network who was named president of IU Health-Fort Wayne in January after serving as a consultant during its entry into Fort Wayne.

“We're building a foundation for IU Health in Fort Wayne, and that foundation will provide people more access to health care. The response has been incredible. We're well on our way to having 20 to 30 primary care doctors,” said Bauer, who noted that the market was considered 40 to 50 primary care doctors shortly before IU Health's arrival.

IU Health hasn't met those hiring goals yet, but Bauer said its presence is already giving consumers more access and choices when it comes to medical care. The Engle Road clinic, which began with one doctor and one physicians assistant but has grown to eight such practitioners, made 250 same-day appointments in April.

With a firm foundation in place, Bauer is confident IU Health can continue to grow, and will.

In the wake of Lutheran Hospital's announcement in March that it would suspend its heart transplant program, IU Health is planning to open a heart transplant clinic at Engle and Jefferson. The clinic won't do the surgery – that would be done at IU's Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis – but it will handle many pre- and post-operative functions, sparing patients considerable time and expense.

But that's still not all. A surgical center is planned at Aboite Center and Dicke roads just across the street from Lutheran Hospital. Urgent care is planned for Lima Road. IU Health is working to build relationships with local specialists and with the IU School of Medicine in Fort Wayne. All of that and more, some of which Bauer said he can't talk about yet, could help control the cost of health care in Fort Wayne.

As for that long-rumored hospital, it is known Bauer and IU Health have discussed the city-owned “North River” site near downtown Fort Wayne. It would take a large foundation to support such a project, but Bauer said he's not ruling anything out.

“Fort Wayne is blessed with two great (health care systems),” Bauer said, referring to Lutheran Health Network and Parkview Health. “The city can support great health care. I can't predict the future, but I'm excited with where we're at.”

IU Health bills itself as “Indiana's most comprehensive health care system,” with more than $6 billion in annual revenues, 15 hospitals, 2,000 employed doctors, and 117,000 admissions and 2.6 million outpatient visits annually. Parkview declined to comment about its arrival in Fort Wayne, but in a statement Lutheran said it is “confident and excited about what the future holds for our team (and) focused on delivering high-quality care for our patients.”

Since the beginning of 2018, Lutheran Health Physicians has added more than 70 providers and is targeting the recruitment of 20 more family medicine physicians during the next 18 months. By year's end, Lutheran Health Network will have invested or committed more than $300 million in capital improvements during the past two years, not including the estimated $120 million to build Lutheran Hospital Downtown, for which a July groundbreaking is planned.

Physicians Health Plan, a Fort Wayne-based insurance company, said in a statement that “IU Health has an excellent reputation, and having an additional quality health care provider in our region and increased primary care physicians will be of great value to our members.”

Local IU Physicians, the statement said, are “already members of the PHP network and we're pleased to have them as an additional resource. Part of PHP's strategy to provide cost-efficient and innovative health care solutions is seeking partners that share our interest in transforming the health and well being of our region. IU Health's research and community involvement are welcome efforts toward building a healthier community.”

IU Health's arrival was also aided by the creation of Kyber Health LLC, which is a partner in the local venture and raised more than $20 million in startup capital. Much of that money was from local investors whose companies could be future IU Health customers.

Bauer said Fort Wayne's increasing positive reputation has been a boon for the recruitment of doctors and other in-demand professionals.

“I get to sell Fort Wayne, and it's an easy sell,” Bauer said. “Sweetwater Sound, the zoo, the schools, the low cost of living. This is a unique opportunity to be part of something from the ground up in a growing city.”