LEWISTON — Covenant Health members, including St. Mary’s Health System in Lewiston, are consolidating human resources, billing and other administration to save money and help pay for a new $75 million electronic medical records system.

Covenant is also standardizing care across its hospitals, including at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center.  

“We’re all being touched in some way by this integration process,” St. Mary’s President and CEO Chris Chekouras said.

Covenant is a Massachusetts-based Catholic health system comprised of nursing homes, assisted living and rehabilitation facilities and hospitals. With more than a dozen full members and nearly a dozen affiliates, it serves all six New England states and Pennsylvania. 

Only members are affected by the change. 

In Maine, Covenant members include St. Mary’s, St. Joseph Healthcare in Bangor and the St. Andre Health Care Facility in Biddeford.

St. Mary’s joined Covenant in 1992.

For decades, Covenant’s members operated independently, running their own finances, making their own rules for patient care and generally driving their own administration.

About a year and a half ago, Covenant officials and members began talking about how they could evolve to meet the rapid changes in health care. One way would be to establish a single electronic medical record system for Covenant’s three hospitals.

The Epic medical record system is expected to go live at St. Joseph Healthcare in Bangor and St. Joseph Hospital in New Hampshire in November. It’s slated to go live at St. Mary’s next April.

But the system costs $75 million and Covenant couldn’t just write a check.

“In order to afford that kind of investment, we knew we needed to continue as an organization to integrate more and identify opportunities for savings,” Chekouras said.

Covenant members are now in the middle of consolidating administration and back office functions, including patient billing, marketing, human resources, information technology and purchasing.   

“Human resources as an example,” Chekouras said. “Up until just recently, we had more than two dozen different benefit plans across all of the Covenant entities. Now we move toward a common benefit platform.”

At the same time, Covenant members are standardizing patient care by identifying best practices and adopting them across the system.

“If you imagine sort of guardrails on a road,” Chekouras said. “So those guardrails are going to be up saying our standard work has to fit within these guardrails. There may be  nuances that are required for a particular population that you’re serving, but the work has to fit within those guardrails.”

The goal is to save $40 million over three years. Chekouras said changes have saved $14 million so far.

He believes patients will experience little difference, though they may see more consistency throughout Covenant’s facilities, improved billing and better access to patient records.

Chekouras said there have been no layoffs, but as changes evolve, “positions will have to evolve with that.” He said employees may see changes in their jobs — what they do or how they do it — and many will report to someone different.  

“The one thing that it certainly does for every employee as you go through a change, no matter how significant or insignificant it may seem to a particular individual, it always creates a level of anxiety for everybody, present company included,” he said.

Chekouras said the system is trying to alleviate that anxiety by being transparent about the changes and seeking employee input “where appropriate.”

“Ultimately, it will lead to a stronger organization,” Chekouras said of the changes.

Covenant isn’t the only health care system looking at changes as medical care and health insurance face upheaval.

Central Maine Healthcare, which oversees Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, Rumford Hospital and Bridgton Hospital, is developing what its CEO has called a “transformational plan” for its future.

MaineHealth, the state’s largest health network, announced in December that it’s considering consolidating its member hospitals, including Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington and Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway, under a single authority.

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