WEST HILLS : Hospital to Join New Health-Care Network

Medical centers in West Hills and Santa Barbara will join two of Ventura County's largest hospitals to create a regional health-care network that will increase patients' choices, hospital officials said.

West Hills Regional Medical Center in West Hills, Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo and Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara are planning an alliance that will allow them to negotiate together with insurance companies, officials said.

Jill Donahue, director of marketing for Los Robles and West Hills, said the network will make the hospitals more attractive to patients and insurers.

"They'll cover a greater area," she said. "It'll give the patients more choices."

For instance, people who work in Thousand Oaks but live in Camarillo may now be encouraged to go to a Thousand Oaks hospital under their insurance plan, Donahue said. But the alliance will make it easier for such commuters to visit hospitals near their homes.

Some details of the arrangement are still under discussion, but Donahue said the hospitals, which will remain under separate ownership, have reached "a gentleman's agreement." Spokeswomen from Cottage and from the Mercy system, which includes St. John's and Pleasant Valley, also confirmed the deal this week.

Donahue said no money would change hands among the medical centers, but representatives of all the hospitals would serve on a committee to negotiate contracts with insurance companies.

She said the alliance could eventually lead to closer cooperation among the hospitals in a variety of areas. David Langness, a spokesman for the Health Care Assn. of Southern California, said that is what usually occurs after an insurance-contracting network is formed.

Langness said pressure from insurers is driving hospitals into each other's arms across Southern California.

"In order to survive, hospitals have to be networked in Southern California," Langness said. "There's almost no such thing in Southern California as a stand-alone health-care provider."

Langness said compared to mergers, alliances allow hospitals to maintain some local autonomy while giving them increased negotiating clout with insurers.

Steve Valentine, a health-care consultant familiar with the local market, said such networks are constrained by antitrust regulations. For instance, they cannot share price information or threaten to boycott a health insurer to gain an advantage. "You don't get a lot of leverage," he said.

But he said the alliance should be taken seriously. "It's a network of strong players that covers a lot of turf," Valentine said.

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