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Hackensack Meridian CEO reflects on 5-year merger anniversary: 'So much has been accomplished'

When Hackensack (N.J.) University Health Network and Neptune, N.J.-based Meridian Health merged to form Hackensack Meridian Health on July 1, 2016, it was viewed as a merger of equals.

The newly formed network initially comprised 13 hospitals, including two academic medical centers and two children's hospitals, as well as more than 120 ambulatory care centers, surgery centers and urgent care centers. It had about 28,000 employees.

Now, five years later, Hackensack Meridian Health is the largest, most comprehensive and integrated healthcare network in New Jersey, with 17 hospitals, 500 patient care locations, more than 36,000 team members and more than 7,000 physicians.

The growth is in keeping with the health system's mission to "transform healthcare and be recognized as the leader of positive change," according to CEO Robert Garrett.

"So much has been accomplished [in the past five years]. I feel very good about it," said Mr. Garrett. "If I go back to our mission, there were so many ways we lived that mission each day in terms of what we did to transform [healthcare]."

Mr. Garrett discussed the anniversary milestone with Becker's June 30.

One accomplishment he said he's particularly proud of is opening the only private medical school in New Jersey in conjunction with Seton Hall University, based in South Orange. The Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine welcomed its first class of medical students in July 2018, and the first class graduated this past May.

"We really are transforming medical education with the curriculum we put in place. It's very innovative. It's focused on the social determinants of health. It's focused on prevention and wellness equal to treatment. I think it's going to prepare doctors in a very unique way in the future. If you're going to transform healthcare, you have to start there," Mr. Garrett said.

In May 2019, the health system also opened its Hackensack Meridian Center for Discovery and Innovation, which focuses on research around diseases such as cancer, diabetes, dementia, antibiotic-resistant infection and auto-immune disorders.

Although the center opened before the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Garrett described it as a game-changer, particularly during the public health crisis.

He said the center "is translating research from the lab to the bedside in record time," and established a commercial COVID-19 test that reduced turnaround time for test results. Also, during the pandemic, the center, in collaboration with cancer physicians, established a convalescent plasma therapy program.

In the area of behavioral health, Hackensack Meridian merged in January 2019 with Belle Mead, N.J.-based behavioral health provider Carrier Clinic to improve behavioral healthcare. As part of that merger, the health system has opened a new behavioral health urgent care center and a new addiction treatment center. Mr. Garrett said the organization is also repurposing other space to expand behavioral healthcare.

"This proved to be more of a crucial strategy [mental health] because of COVID," he said. "We see mental illness significantly on the rise. We see addiction disorders significantly on the rise. I think that transformation in behavioral health was huge for us."

In the area of cancer, Hackensack Meridian partnered with New York City-based Memorial Sloan Kettering in December 2016, and the organizations are working on establishing cancer centers and cancer programs closer to people's homes, said Mr. Garrett.

Additionally, Hackensack Meridian became a joint owner and operator of Braven Health, a Medicare company also jointly owned and operated by Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey and West Orange, N.J.-based RWJBarnabas Health.

Mr. Garrett credited health system team members with these and the many other highlights since the Hackensack University Health Network and Meridian Health merger in 2016.

"We have an amazing team at Hackensack Meridian. Everything I mentioned they worked hard to accomplish. Those are not easy transformations to accomplish in a short period of time," he said.

At the time of the 2016 merger, Hackensack Meridian was led by co-CEOs and co-chairs of the board. John Lloyd, president and CEO of Meridian Health, and Mr. Garrett, president and CEO of Hackensack University Health Network, co-led the newly formed organization for two and a half years. Mr. Lloyd has since retired, and Mr. Garrett is the sole CEO, although top leadership today includes people from each of the legacy organizations, as well as some from other healthcare organizations and outside of healthcare.

Mr. Garrett said the initial leadership model "worked out well because we had that head start where we started to integrate, built on that foundation and were able to streamline our processes."

Moving forward, he projects the health system will invest more in home care, continue to use telehealth to connect patients and providers, and continue working to address social determinants of health and healthcare inequities.

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