Community Medical Center announced Thursday that it is forming a partnership with Billings Clinic to launch a new heart program at the Missoula hospital’s main campus.

Dr. Dean French, the CEO of Community Medical Center, said that heart disease is the leading cause of death and disability in men and women in both western Montana and the nation. And as the population here grows — and Baby Boomers age — cardiac care needs will increase.

“In the next decade, Montana will be one of six states where the majority of the population is over 65,” French said. “It is the largest-growing segment of the population in our area. As we look at that fact, we realize that we need to step in and provide increased services for cardiovascular care in the future.”

Community Medical Center has been providing heart and vascular care for 15 years. But French said that as they looked at the needs in the community, they realized they needed a partner to expand.

“It was very obvious that our partner was already our partner, and that was Billings Clinic,” French explained. “Billings Clinic is the highest-rated hospital system (in Montana) in U.S. News and World Report, it has run a top-notch heart and vascular center for the past decade and they are a natural partner for us.”

In 2014, Community Medical Center changed from a nonprofit hospital to a for-profit model when it sold to a partnership between Billings Clinic and RegionalCare Hospital Partners for $74 million in cash.

The heart center at CMC will now be called Billings Clinic Heart and Vascular at Community Medical Center, and it will provide full-time interventional and clinical cardiology services, including a catheritization lab with round-the-clock support for heart attacks that occur as a result of complete blockages. The facility will also have a cardiology outpatient rehabilitation unit and cardiac ultrasound services.

CMC recently hired Dr. Robert Minor and Dr. Douglas Waldo, both interventional cardiologists, to perform therapies using only radial artery access through the wrist for both heart and vascular disease. This relatively new method, which in the past was performed using a groin access point, has been shown to be effective and easier on patients.

French said the new program means hiring new providers and possibly, in the future, building a new facility at CMC’s campus on South Avenue west of Reserve Street.

Since CMC was purchased and became a for-profit hospital, competition with its cross-town rival, St. Patrick's Hospital, has heated up.

St. Pat's, a non-profit, launched new maternity and neonatal intensive care services, which previously had been available only at CMC.

Now CMC is expanding cardiac services, turf that St. Pat's had staked out with its International Heart Institute, which specialized in complicated heart surgeries.

French was vocally opposed to St. Pat's decision to open a neonatal intensive care unit. However, he denied any suggestion that CMC’s new foray into heart care is retaliation against St. Pat’s moves into neonatal intensive care.

“We’ve carefully looked at the demographics, we’ve carefully looked at what is the need and is it growing,” French said. “We’re not trying to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to take market share (away from St. Pat’s).’ We’re saying this is an increasing need.

"We’re hearing from our partners that they need more services. Let’s step up and provide them. And to be blunt, if Community Medical Center’s going to be a thriving healthcare system in the future, with what the demographics are telling us, we really need to step in and fill these spaces.”

Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services requires Certificates of Need (government or independent analysis that new health care initiatives won’t drive up healthcare costs) only for certain initiatives, such as nursing homes. Hospitals in Montana are required to complete an annual Certificate of Need Health Care Facility Report, but this new cardiac program didn’t require a separate Certificate of Need.

A spokesperson for St. Patrick Hospital didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the CMC announcement.

French said that St. Pat’s has a “great program” and his staff of cardiologists have been in “collegial conversations” with their counterparts at St. Pat’s.

“Dr. (Stuart) Long runs an amazing cardio-thoracic program over there and our patients benefit from it. So how do we partner with them is part of this, too,” French said.

He said CMC has no plans to perform the complicated heart surgeries that St. Pat's Heart Institute specializes in.

The two hospitals, rather than competing, are complementing each other to help reduce the number of patients that need to travel out of state for specialized care, according to French.

“One of the things Dr. Minor (at CMC) brings is what’s called peripheral vascular and endovascular interventions, which isn’t readily available in Missoula,'' French said. "So it’s a new service, and one of the things that we’d like to see is some reciprocal give and take with (St. Pat's) on that.

"We know if we have a patient that needs a heart valve procedure, we can send them across town and get world-class care,” French said. “Similarly, (St. Pat's) right now might have a patient that needs some peripheral vascular or carotid disease dealt with. Rather than sending (the case) to Spokane, they can now send that patient to Community Medical Center.”

Dr. Minor said vascular disease involves blockages that form outside the heart. He said that people who have had a heart attack have a high probability of having blockages outside the heart as well.

He also said that he hopes to serve more people from rural areas in Montana now instead of letting them go out of state.

“People like to come to Missoula, not only for shopping and good beer, but also for health care,” he said. “Now we’re hoping to provide them with the equivalent of anything they could get in any larger city or any larger medical center and help them avoid having to make the trip over the mountain passes to places like Spokane or even Seattle, where many of these people have gone in the past. Now we’re saying we can do that right here for you.”

Minor said that the new program will specialize in vascular care.

According to the Montana DPHHS, 1.4 million Americans suffer from a heart attack each year, and an estimated 610,000 people die from heart-disease related issues annually. In Montana, heart disease is consistently among the top two most common causes of death each year.

Billings Clinic has a nationally recognized program, according to hospital officials, and is the only hospital in the region accredited by the American College of Cardiology as a chest pain center.

“We’re excited to share our extensive cardiovascular experience, resources and accreditations with CMC,” said Dr. Randall Gibb, Billings Clinic CEO. “The new Heart and Vascular program at CMC will offer patients throughout the region access to new options for outstanding care.”

Both Gibb and French said they’ve been in talks for over a year about the new partnership, and they’ll have strategic meetings over the next year to discuss ongoing expansion plans.

“We are pleased to partner with Billings Clinic to expand our cardiovascular team of physicians, while continuing to provide CMC’s excellent team of nurses, therapists and clinical staff,” French said. “Treating patients with cardiovascular disease is complex, with new techniques and technologies changing regularly. As a result, we want to ensure we are providing high-quality specialists to deliver the most advanced care to our patients.”

For more information visit communitymed.org or billingsclinic.com.

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