UM Health System Reports Its ‘Best Financial Year Ever’ As Cancer Care, Surgeries Grow

The 560-bed hospital that once threatened to hang like a dead albatross around the neck of the University of Miami Health System has begun to show signs of a financial turnaround — inspiring talk of “a new day” from the chief executive for UHealth, the UM network of hospitals, clinics and doctors that make up the region’s only academic medical center.

“Last year, we had our best financial year ever,” said Dr. Edward Abraham, UHealth CEO.

A growing demand for cancer care, a rise in outpatient clinic visits and the consolidation of three separate UM hospitals under a single license helped UHealth record a $217 million profit for the year that ended May 31, according to a recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

That’s nearly three times the $83.8 million profit UHealth reported for the prior year, and includes some good news for the formerly named Cedars of Lebanon Hospital that UM purchased in 2007 but has struggled to make profitable in recent years.

Though the hospital, renamed UHealth Tower, lost $79.1 million for the year that ended May 31, there’s a silver lining: The loss is considerably less than the hospital’s prior year deficit of $94.5 million, and it does not account for a significant investment UM is making to refurbish the aging facility with new operating rooms, interior and exterior renovations, and infrastructure upgrades, including new generators and elevators.

UHealth announced in January that the hospital will be home to a new proton therapy program for cancer, which blasts highly charged proton particles at tumors, reducing damage to surrounding healthy tissue. The program is expected to debut in 2020.

Additional investments in UHealth Tower include five new cardiac catheterization labs and other resources aimed at rebuilding the hospital’s cardiac surgery program, which was set back by the November 2017 departure of two prominent surgeons, Donald Williams and Rogerio Carrillo, specialists in coronary bypass, valve repair, and aortic surgery.

Abraham declined to explain why Williams and Carrillo left UHealth. “I really can’t talk about the personnel actions,” he said.

The surgeons’ departure led to a reduction in cardiac surgeries at UHealth Tower over the past year, and the university has a strategy beyond investing in new resources to rebuild the program — recruiting a star physician who will attract patients from near and far.

Past and present UHealth executives familiar with the system’s plans said that star physician is Joseph Lamelas, a Cuban-American native of South Florida who is considered a pioneer in minimally invasive heart surgery. The former chief of cardiac surgery for Mount Sinai Miami Beach, Lamelas left South Florida for Baylor College of Medicine in Houston in 2017. Sources said he will return to Miami to work for UHealth in January.

Asked about Lamelas, Abraham blushed and laughed. “I can’t say anything,” he said.

The investments in UHealth Tower and the addition of Lamelas are designed to leverage two lucrative services for South Florida hospitals — cancer and cardiac care — and to enhance the system’s core brand as an academic medical center with a faculty practice of nearly 1,300 physicians and specialists, a medical school that trains doctors and performs research, and an integrated network of hospitals and clinics.

“It’s really our destiny,” Abraham said, “to set up these destination programs, these marquee programs that take full advantage of this expertise.”

But some hospital and healthcare experts doubt that UHealth’s brand as an academic medical center will be enough to set it apart from other health systems in the region that have made similar investments.

Baptist Health South Florida, the region’s largest nonprofit hospital system, opened a $430 million cancer center in January 2017 that is partnered with the nationally regarded Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York while Memorial Healthcare System in South Broward is partnered with Tampa’s H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, the state’s only National Cancer Institute-designated program.

Allan Baumgarten, an independent healthcare analyst and author of the bi-annual Florida Health Market Review, said lucrative lines of business for hospitals and health systems are also highly competitive.

“At a certain point,” he said, “you have to think that there’s a saturation point.”

Baumgarten said hospitals with destination cancer programs also are vulnerable to changes in payment by Medicare, the national health insurance program for Americans 65 and older, and the largest payer of hospital care in the United States.

Healthcare systems that deliver chemotherapy and other cancer treatment through outpatient clinics are allowed to charge hospital prices, which are higher. But Medicare is moving toward so-called site-neutral payments that would cap reimbursement for clinic visits at a lower rate comparable to that paid for care delivered in a doctor’s office.

“If Medicare is able to do that,” Baumgarten said, “then private insurers will likely follow.”

Joshua Nemzoff, a Pennsylvania hospital consultant who used to live in Miami, said UHealth must find a way to differentiate itself in a market where so many other hospitals and health systems offer more modern facilities located closer to where people live — and the quality of care is generally very good.

“There is no clear standout,” he said of South Florida hospitals.

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