When he was in private practice at Rodeo Family Medicine, Dr. Gerzain Chavez barely had time to see his patients.
There was the mounting paperwork, the struggles with the increasingly Byzantine medical insurance system. And as for his patient base, that too had changed over the last decade, as he was able to treat fewer and fewer low-income patients on programs such as Medicaid and Medicare, due to the dropping reimbursements from the government.
By selling his practice to CHRISTUS St. Vincent Regional Medical Center approximately two years ago, Chavez says, he’s been able to go back to being a doctor.
He’s not alone. The hospital purchased five doctors and nurses from Rodeo Family Medicine, as well as another four from St. Michael’s Family Medicine. St. Vincent also owns Harkle Road Family Medicine and Pojoaque Primary Care. In total, according to CHRISTUS St. Vincent spokesman Arturo Delgado, the hospital has hired more than 50 physicians in the past three years, as well as a new neurosurgeon who began work this month and a pulmonary critical care physician who starts in October.
Hospital officials say expanding its physician ranks is one way in which the growing institution will be able to serve its expanding customer base.
“Some might kick around the term ‘monopoly,’” CEO Alex Valdez says. “Through my eyes, we need to be as strong as we can be, because that’s what the community is expecting of us.”
But others worry the hospital’s growth is leaving patients with fewer options. It’s of particular concern in some sectors following St. Vincent’s April 8 merger with CHRISTUS Health, an organization that follows religious doctrine from the Catholic Church.
“One of the problems with St. Vincent is the fact that they are truly the only game in town,” medical legal consultant Elliott Oppenheim says. He, like others, believes “women’s health services will be greatly impacted here” due to the merger. “No question about it.”
There also is no question that the merger, the growth and doctors’ migration to St. Vincent reflects a larger health-care trend. Increasing numbers of clinics and smaller hospitals, over the past few years, have become part of large medical corporations, as the cost of doing business on their own grows.
In fact, in New Mexico only 30 percent of doctors work in private practices and 17 New Mexico hospitals are owned by just three health systems.
New Mexico Department of Health Secretary Alfredo Vigil says that hospitals and clinics are no different than any other American business in this regard—small mom-and-pops are joining franchises. To put it another way, he says, “you don’t see solo hamburger stands anymore.”