'We're all in this together, and we need each other:' says ECU Health CFO

Andy Zukowski, CFO of Greenville, N.C.-based ECU Health is heading into 2024 with a goal to make a big impact on rural healthcare. 

"We're looking to create the model for rural academic healthcare across the country, and figure out how do we leverage the population health strategy tools data to then improve the health and wellness across eastern North Carolina," Mr. Zukowski told Becker's.

ECU Health was created in January 2022 through a joint operating agreement between East Carolina University's Brody School of Medicine and Vidant Health, and serves over 1.4 million people in 29 eastern North Carolina counties.

"That [ECU Health partnership] really created hope, inspiration, and really a strategic platform for us all to focus on the future, to focus on how do we then navigate through the pandemic and aftermath of that, and all the change that's in front of us. I would say that relationship is very strong and very successful, something we're quite proud of," said Mr. Zukowski. 

Most recently, the 1,708-bed academic healthcare system broke ground on a $65 million, 144-bed inpatient treatment facility in a joint venture with Franklin, Tenn.-based Acadia Healthcare to expand behavioral health resources. 

The facility will also include 24 inpatient beds dedicated to child and adolescent behavioral health needs, and is expected to be open in spring 2025. "We're very excited about that. It's a significantly underserved population," Mr. Zukowski said.

In another effort to improve rural healthcare, $420 million of the $30 billion North Carolina  2023-2024 state budget went to a new initiative called NC Care, which is made up of ECU Health and Chapel Hill-based UNC Health. The funds were allocated from the Appropriations Act, a spokesperson for ECU Health told Becker's. Additionally, of the $2.6 billion in state budget provided to 102 North Carolina hospitals under the Medicaid expansion program on Dec. 1, ECU Health received nearly $100 million. 

Looking to 2024, Mr. Zukowski said the largest industry financial challenge he foresees is the rebuilding of balance sheets. "We need balance sheet strength for general operations, sustainability, and keeping things moving. More importantly though, we need to strengthen our balance sheet because I am certain that there will be additional headwinds that the industry will continue to manage through as we're going through significant change in transition," he said. 

In an effort to ensure continued sustainability and resilience, Mr. Zukowski said ECU Health will build on the stabilization and framework created in 2023. "Continue to mature those processes, continue to execute our large aspirations and plans that support our financial health and wellbeing. There's nothing more fantastic to it. I think we all have to take on different strategies as it relates to our community. I think we have to think of partnerships with our payer partners as well. Figure out, we're all in this together and we need each other," Mr. Zukowski said.

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