January 27, 2012 | last updated April 19, 2012 1:56 pm

Nashoba Hospital Changing Under Steward

It's been eight months since Steward Health Care acquired Ayer's Nashoba Valley Medical Center, and a number of changes to the hospital are already evident. The rapidly growing, private-equity backed hospital system has made capital improvements, added a new health insurance option for employees and integrated the hospital's electronic records with the other hospitals in the system.

Ayer Selectman Frank Maxant said he knows a number of employees at the hospital, and the talk he's heard in town is positive.

"There seems to be a sense of satisfaction," Maxant said. "People are optimistic, which is unusual. There's usually some kind of complaints when anything changes."

Nashoba is one of 10 hospitals in the Steward system, which began when New York private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management bought the six-member Caritas Christi system. Steward followed that up by buying Nashoba and Merrimack Valley hospitals from fellow for-profit company Essent Healthcare of Tennessee. Then, in October 2011, it acquired Morton Hospital and Medical Center in Taunton and Quincy Medical Center.

Physical Changes, ER Renovation

Nashoba CEO Steve Roach said the physical changes Steward has brought to the 57-bed hospital include updating equipment, renovating the emergency department and increasing its size by 20 percent. Over the next year, he said, the system plans to update the air conditioning and heating system and spend $1 million to $1.5 million on new patient care equipment such as monitors.

Roach said there haven't been any staffing cuts at the hospital, although a billing office was centralized, sending some administrative employees to a Steward corporate office.

The new ownership also means that patients who need specialized care are now typically sent to other Steward hospitals rather than to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, as had been done in the past. Nashoba's electronic health records system has been integrated with those at other Steward hospitals, so patient information is immediately accessible to doctors at the other locations.

For employees, one of the most significant changes is a new health insurance option. Roach said workers can now opt for either a traditional plan or a version of a limited-network plan Steward is also selling to the public. Employees who choose the second option must use Steward providers for their care, but their out-of-pocket costs are low, and premiums are adjusted for income so lower-paid workers spend less on insurance.

Several Nashoba employees, who didn't want their names used because it's against hospital policy to talk to the media without authorization, said they're happy with the new insurance plan.

"It's like getting a raise, basically," said one woman, who said she works in housekeeping.

The employee said she's been pleased with the new ownership in general.

Another employee, from the hospital's food service department, agreed.

"People are very helpful, open, receptive to our comments and questions," she said.

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