Noted doctor says changes in ‘medical economics’ forcing shifts in Fort Smith area medical industry

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 4,211 views 

Just two weeks after Mercy Clinic-Fort Smith and Cooper Clinic announced merger talks, five of the six orthopedic surgeons at Cooper Clinic are leaving to join Sparks Health System, the primary competitor to Mercy operations in Fort Smith.

Five local physicians who specialize in orthopedic surgery will join Sparks Clinic. Drs. Jeffrey Evans, John Harp, Eric Heim, Stephen Heim, and Michael Wolfe, will begin seeing patients at Sparks Medical Plaza in early November.

“We’ve had a longstanding relationship with these talented physicians from Cooper Clinic and we are happy to welcome them into the Sparks family,” Sparks Health System CEO Dan McKay said in a Thursday (Sept. 21) statement. “They do extraordinary work in our hospitals and I know they’ll do just as well in our clinic.”

The Cooper Clinic system may soon become part of Mercy Clinic-Fort Smith.

“Members of both boards feel strongly about retaining the excellent physicians currently practicing in Fort Smith and are committed to the sustainability and growth of the city and region’s medical community,” noted a short statement from Mercy Clinic issued Sept. 7.

Cooper Clinic, independent and physician-owned, has been in operation more than 97 years and has physicians who practice in 25 specialties.

Dr. Stephen Heim, an offensive lineman for the Arkansas Razorbacks who played under Frank Broyles and the first year with Lou Holtz as the new head Hog coach, is a veteran and noted orthopedic surgeon in Fort Smith and Arkansas. He has been with Cooper Clinic since 1988. He said in recent years the “medical economics” have made it more difficult for physicians in certain specialties to make money unless directly working for a hospital. In a Thursday interview with Talk Business & Politics, Heim said he has “nothing against Cooper Clinic” or the Mercy system. In fact, Heim and many of the surgeons have worked in both systems in the past few years. But at age 61, Heim said “working the two (emergency rooms) was just too hard.”

“I personally think both hospitals do a good job,” Heim said, adding that it is important the Fort Smith area have two financially healthy and competitive hospital systems.

Because orthopedic surgery has historically generated good revenue for the clinic, Heim speculated that the decision by the orthopedic surgeons to leave Cooper Clinic for Sparks may have pushed the Cooper board toward considering a deal with Mercy. Heim said good management at Cooper Clinic and a “loyal cadre” of doctors have helped Cooper Clinic remain viable possibly longer than it should have in the face of the changing medical economics.

As to why five of the six orthopedic surgeons made the move to Sparks, Heim said it came down to two primary reasons: “They (Sparks) offered us a great deal,” and the hospital system also agreed to take care of the almost 20 people who supported the doctors at Cooper Clinic.

“We didn’t want one person to lose their job,” Heim said, adding that Sparks also agreed to bring on the former Cooper employees with the same seniority and associated benefits.

He said part of the great deal from Sparks includes “state-of-the-art” operating rooms at the Sparks Orthopedic and Spine Center at Sparks Regional Medical Center, in which the hospital has provided the best in equipment and access.

Heim also offered some solace to those concerned the Cooper deal would be a negative for the medical sector. He said it’s likely a Mercy-Cooper deal will happen before the end of the year, but stressed it will be “more of a realignment” of doctors and support staff than a disruption for patients.

As to if Sparks is recruiting other Cooper Clinic doctors, Stacy Johnson, director of marketing and communications at Sparks Health System, said the hospital is always recruiting good doctors.

“Sparks Health System is always recruiting and growing physician services to best serve the patients in our community. We look forward to expanding our relationship with the orthopedic physicians by having them join our Sparks Clinic family,” Johnson said.

Mercy Clinic declined to comment for this story.