Hackensack Meridian, Carrier exploring a partnership

Hackensack Meridian Health announced a letter of intent with Carrier Clinic to explore a yet-undefined partnership opportunity.

Carrier Clinic has been a prominent brand for behavioral health in New Jersey, especially in recent years as more attention has been paid to the sector.

In 2016, half of the increase in emergency room visits in New Jersey were related to behavioral health issues as the state battles an opioid epidemic. In 2016 alone, more than 2,000 lives were lost to the epidemic, which represents a 40 percent increase from the previous year, the joint statement from Hackensack Meridian and Carrier said.

What this will mean for Carrier’s existing relationships with other hospitals and providers is unclear at this time.

“We’ve been Switzerland for a long time,” Carrier CEO Don Parker told ROI-NJ. “Our market share comes from every hospital in the state.”

Parker said Carrier should be able to continue as a tertiary hospital, but combine the capabilities of Hackensack Meridian with Carrier, which will expand Carrier’s reach in northern New Jersey.

Currently, Carrier has a strong presence in the central and southern parts of the state, and very little presence in the northern part and outside the state.

“My role is I’m going to be working with Hackensack Meridian’s behavioral health team to integrate where possible and build greater capability in their distribution system,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for us to spread our capability by using the Hackensack Meridian distribution system.”

The nonbinding agreement will help determine what value add each entity can bring to the table.

Robert Garrett, co-CEO of Hackensack Meridian Health, said the partnership could mimic the existing relationship HMH has with Memorial Sloan Kettering, or could result in a full-fledged merger.

“We think partnering with Carrier Clinic makes great sense because behavioral health now, not just in New Jersey, but across the country, is fragmented at best,” Garrett said. “The geography makes good sense. Many of our partnerships have been through contiguous geography. They are close enough to do exciting things together.”

Carrier and HMH first experienced a partnership relationship when they were bidding together, through a coalition, to operate the former Bergen Regional Medical Center.

Now that HMH has received approval for 37 licensed psychiatric beds — as part of Gov. Chris Christie’s push to add 811 licensed beds to help provide greater behavioral health care in the state — Garrett said the system can look at how working with Carrier can result in a better strategy.

In addition, Garrett said, working with Carrier opens up better opportunities as the system transitions to value-based care, and could provide great exposure for the students who will be attending the new Seton Hall University-Hackensack Meridian Health medical school.

“We are thrilled to announce this strategy to deliver exceptional clinical expertise and to demonstrate a new model of high-quality, evidenced-based care,’’ Garrett said. “It continues our commitment to fully integrate behavioral health into our network for the benefit of our patients.’’

The letter of intent focuses on creating a system with 24-hour access to behavioral health care in a variety of settings, including outpatient, urgent care, residential and inpatient care.

“This plan will create exceptional, comprehensive care at a time of great need for expanded, enhanced and innovative behavioral health services,’’ Parker said.

John Lloyd, co-CEO of Hackensack Meridian, said the partnership comes at a critical time.

“The opioid crisis is unprecedented in its scope and intensity, and this partnership would enhance our efforts to be part of the solution,” he said. “It would also deliver a team-based care approach to behavioral health patients who too often received fragmented care which doesn’t yield the best outcomes.’’