For Saint Peter’s, LOI with Atlantic Health is (hopefully) end of long journey to find partner

For more than a century, Saint Peter’s University Hospital (and now Saint Peter’s Healthcare System) has stood as a gem of the state’s health care sector.

The 478-bed acute-care teaching hospital not only has served as a state-designated children’s hospital and regional perinatal center — but as a facility devoted to its Catholic mission and determination to abide by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.

In the past decade, however, Saint Peter’s also has been a one-hospital system facing the new-age realities of health care.

On Wednesday, Saint Peter’s appeared to have found the partner it needed to survive and thrive. The system announced it has signed a letter of intent to pursue a strategic partnership with Atlantic Health System, a partnership in which Saint Peter’s would get the support it needed without losing its Catholic identity.

The announcement comes fewer than two years after a planned partnership with RWJBarnabas Health was blocked due to regulatory concerns — concerns that are not as prevalent with Atlantic Health.

Saint Peter’s CEO Les Hirsch said he’s hopeful the system’s long journey is on its final steps.

“For the past several years, Saint Peter’s has engaged in a Discernment Process, with the support of the Most Rev. James F. Checchio, bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen, and Saint Peter’s board of governors, to determine the best course for our long-term future,” he said. “The most critical objective has been to find a path to secure our Catholic mission of serving the community, especially the most vulnerable, as we have done for more than 116 years.”

It has been a challenge, Hirsch noted.

“The hospital industry has substantially transformed over the past 10 years, and we remain the only single-hospital health system in Middlesex County and one of the few remaining in New Jersey,” he said. “Although Saint Peter’s is stronger today than ever, throughout this journey, it has become clear that, to assure our future success, we need a strategic partner whose resources, capabilities and values are aligned with our mission.”

Under the terms of the LOI, Atlantic Health System will make significant investments in Saint Peter’s, helping it to continue to evolve as a high-quality and comprehensive health care system serving communities throughout central New Jersey.

The two systems will work collaboratively to create significant synergies, including transitioning Saint Peter’s onto Atlantic Health System’s electronic medical record system.

The partnership will require numerous regulatory approvals from state and federal officials, as is always the case when health systems are involved. And, while it is too soon to speculate on a closing date, there is some hope that a final agreement could be in place by the end of 2025.

Atlantic Health CEO Brian Gragnolati said that day cannot come soon enough.

“Today is the first step on an exciting path towards a joining of talents between Saint Peter’s and Atlantic Health System that will benefit the health and well-being of the people of New Jersey,” he said.

Saint Peter’s has plenty to offer.

A regional specialist in maternity and women’s health services, Saint Peter’s also is noted for cancer care, diabetes, gastroenterology, geriatrics, pediatrics, bariatric surgery and head and neck surgery.

Saint Peter’s also has a stellar reputation for nursing. It recently received its sixth consecutive designation as a Magnet hospital for nursing excellence by the American Nurses Credentialing Center in 2020 and is the recipient of the Beacon Award for Excellence from the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses for the adult intensive care unit, neonatal intensive care unit, cardiac progressive care unit and pediatric intensive care unit.

Saint Peter’s also is a sponsor of residency programs in obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, and internal medicine, and is a major clinical affiliate of Rutgers Biomedical Health and Sciences.

All of this seemingly makes the partnership a win-win. Hirsch is ready to start the process — calling the systems a perfect match.

“We are very excited about the prospect of becoming a part of Atlantic Health, as it has an excellent reputation for being a high-quality healthcare provider and our respective cultures are very well aligned,” he said.