GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — More than a year and a half after AtlantiCare officially merged with Pennsylvania-based Geisinger Health System, community members say they see opportunities to work more heavily with the health system to benefit local programs and services.

Dr. David Feinberg, psychiatrist and Geisinger president and CEO, told a room of community leaders last week the ultimate goal of the October 2015 merger was to improve access and quality of health care to communities as well as support local programs in a more direct way.

“We need to grow in the zip codes we’re in,” he said. “When we look to jump to other places, our decisions are based on if that organization already shares our values. We heard that at AtlantiCare. For you all, joining us is the most important thing.”

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Hospital and health provider mergers have become the norm in New Jersey, especially since the passage of Affordable Care Act. Experts say they expect to see mergers and partnerships continue as future health care changes pose risks to the health care industry.

AtlantiCare is the region’s largest health care organization and largest noncasino employer with more than 5,500 employees at 90 locations throughout six counties. It joined Geisinger, a billion-dollar network with 12 hospital campuses and 30,000 employees and received access to more programs, research and services.

Ron Caplan, associate professor of public health at Stockton University, said mergers didn’t start with the introduction of the ACA, but the national health care reform likely accelerated the trend of mergers and partnerships of health providers for stability.

“We’ll still see more mergers for production,” he said. “If you’re responsible for population health, especially somewhere like Atlantic County, in order to really put your arms around the population and keep it healthy or restore health, you need to have resources.”

Other major state mergers that followed AtlantiCare were Barnabas Health and Robert Wood Johnson Health System into RWJBarnabas Health System and Hackensack University Health Network and Meridian Health into Hackensack Meridian in 2016.

Caplan said people expressed concerns over whether AtlantiCare’s merger with Geisinger would be at the cost of focus on local community engagement and support, but he said it appears the partnership has allowed AtlantiCare to maintain those projects and expand in others.

Attendees among last week’s Geisinger meeting included members of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, state Casino Control Commission, the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office, rehabilitation and nursing centers and other businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Michelle Vorpahl, walk coordinator for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Delaware Valley-South Jersey chapter, said Feinberg’s comments about community commitment and value-based caring coincided with the organization’s values, especially for chapter families who used AtlantiCare’s services.

Richard Uniacke, vice president of the food bank’s southern branch in Egg Harbor Township, said he’d like to see his organization team up with AtlantiCare and Geisinger in the future on a diabetes-focused program and expanding screenings for food insecurity among residents.

“Our vision as the FoodBank involves being able to provide sufficient quantities of the right kinds of food for myriad of health issues so that the populations we are serving together have the chance to do more than just survive … they can actually become healthier and truly thrive,” he said.

Only a handful of acute care hospitals in the state remain independent, and even those have partnerships with hospitals like Penn Medicine, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson University and Health System and others in order to meet specialty care demand.

“It used to be all about solo practitioners, but that’s ancient history now,” Caplan said. “I think stand-alone hospitals will go the same way. There are a lot of advantages to being big.”

Caplan and other experts say independent hospitals may stand to be the most vulnerable for proposed changes happening at the federal level, including a repeal of the Affordable Care Act and an eventual loss of Medicaid funding for expansion states like New Jersey.

Feinberg said he anticipates that Geisinger and its hospitals, including AtlantiCare, will be in a good position should federal health care changes happen.

Within the next year, Feinberg said he sees AtlantiCare and other affiliated hospitals expanding in areas of telemedicine, addiction treatment, value-based care, community outreach, disease prevention, genetic testing and other services.

“This merger has paid off big time for us,” he said. “The day that AtlantiCare became part of Geisinger, we got much better. There’s a spirit here that is palpable when you walk into centers down here.”

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609-272-7022 NLeonard@pressofac.com

Twitter @ACPressNLeonard

Previously interned and reported for Boston.com, The Asbury Park Press, The Boston Globe

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