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story.lead_photo.caption St. Mary's Hospital sits on Mission Drive. SSM and MU Health announced in August they were negotiating the possible sale of SSM Health's St. Mary's Hospital in Jefferson City and Mexico (the former Audrain Medical Center) and their associated clinics, following SSM's decision to leave the Mid-Missouri marketplace. Photo by Kris Wilson / News Tribune.

People involved in the negotiations for MU Health Care to purchase St. Mary's Hospital in Jefferson City have been tight-lipped about the potential sale.

But on Thursday, they announced the discussions led SSM Health — the St. Louis-based owner of the hospital — to sell its home health and hospice ministries in Jefferson City and Mexico to LHC Group, according to Brian Westridge, media relations director for SSM Health.

"Talks are continuing to progress with MU Health Care regarding additional partnership opportunities, including the potential transfer of ownership of our ministries in Mid-Missouri," Westridge wrote in an email to the News Tribune. "As part of these discussions, we became aware that MU Health Care provides home care and hospice services through its partner, LHC Group in lieu of a direct service offering. While the other agreement is still evolving, we have now signed a definitive agreement with LHC to transfer ownership of our home care and hospice ministries in Jefferson City and Mexico."

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Westridge said transfer of ownership of home health and hospice care will continue, regardless of the resolution of the hospital sale.

St. Mary's Hospital's hospice ministries serve 17 counties in Mid-Missouri, Westridge said. And its home health ministries serve 21 counties.

The transaction between SSM Health and LHC Group is expected to be finalized June 1, subject to closing conditions.

Once completed, the ministries will operate as Central Missouri Home Health and Central Missouri Hospice.

LHC Group currently partners with about 350 hospitals nationwide, including Capital Region Medical Center, to provide community-based home health and hospice services.

"We believe this transition is the best way to ensure the long-term sustainability of high-quality compassionate post-acute services in these communities," Bob Pritts, SSM Health at Home president, said in an SSM Health news release.

Keith Myers, LHC Group chairman and CEO stated in the release that the group and its partners are "focused on growing" their service capabilities in the communities they serve.

The August announcement that SSM Health, a Catholic nonprofit health system, was in exclusive discussions with MU Health Care to transfer ownership of the hospital to the university, surprised Mid-Missourians.

The discussions, they said, also included the transfer of SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital-Audrain, along with outpatient, home care, hospice and medical group locations throughout the region, to MU Health Care, as well as the transfer of SSM Health St. Francis Hospital-Maryville and its affiliated outpatient home care, hospice and medical group locations to St. Joseph-based Mosaic Life Care.

The Maryville sale was completed more than a month ago.

SSM Health conducted months of discernment — looking at its mission and deciding what is best for all parties, those involved in the discussions said. The health care provider concluded it needed to put out a request for proposal and see if another health system was interested in buying the Jefferson City hospital.

MU Health Care was the only system that met their requirements, SSM Health said.

Opponents to the sale say the competition in Jefferson City between St. Mary's and Capital Region helps keep costs down. If the Columbia-based system were to buy St. Mary's, it will merge the Jefferson City hospitals into one system, creating a regional monopoly — putting consumers at-risk of potential price fixing, opponents to the sale allege.

St. Mary's Hospital has operated in Jefferson City for more than 100 years. It opened a new 375,000-square-foot, multi-million-dollar facility at 2505 Mission Drive about five years ago — but soon ran into some financial difficulty.

Online records on focusonhospitals.com showed the hospital operated at a $20.9 million loss for the year ending 2016.

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