LIFESPAN AND CNE have announced they will have ongoing discussions about ways to formally collaborate. Above, on left, Lifespan CEO Timothy J. Babineau and Dr. James E. Fanale, president and CEO of Care New England. / PBN FILE PHOTOS/ DAVE HANSEN/MICHAEL SALERNO

PROVIDENCE – Lifespan Corp. and Care New England Health System on Tuesday announced they will spend the next three months in discussions about forming an integrated health care system for Rhode Island, a change brought forward by working together through the COVID-19 pandemic.

The executives for both health care systems jointly announced the exploration process to “understand the pros and cons of what a formal continuation of this collaboration could look like in the future.”

Drs. Timothy J. Babineau, CEO and president of Lifespan, and James E. Fanale, CEO and president of Care New England, in a joint interview with Providence Business News said their respective boards had approved discussions that would involve leaders from both systems, led by the two executives. The 90-day process will explore what an integrated, academic health care system could look like.

It is too soon to describe the potential end result as a merger, said Babineau. “It’s too early to speculate the form that a new organization could take,” he said.

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But both he and Fanale said the unique circumstances of the pandemic had brought them together in recent months.

The relationship between the two health care leaders improved as they discussed how to develop shared policies in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We cracked a few jokes and said, geez, maybe we ought to think about continuing this once the crisis fades,” Babineau said.

Fanale said the two spent considerable time together, working collaboratively on issues surrounding COVID-19, such as temporarily not allowing visitors into hospital settings, when to cancel elective surgery, how to expand care within existing hospital footprints, how to manage field hospitals and policies around personal protective equipment.

The relationship occasionally included the sharing of medical equipment but was more about collaboration and managing health care through the pandemic.

“It became pretty obvious to us that working together was better for all of our organizations and much more importantly, better for our patients,” Fanale said. “We really worked together to share common approaches to these things. We wanted to do things the same ways so it would send a consistent message to all of our patients.”

The two entities are among the largest private employers in Rhode Island. Both have headquarters in Providence. Lifespan in fiscal 2018 had 13,165 employees in Rhode Island, according to the 2020 Providence Business News Book of Lists. Care New England reported 6,295 local employees that same year.

Both have suffered financially during the pandemic.

Lifespan reported an operating loss of $23.8 million in March, an amount that equaled its losses for all of fiscal 2019.

Care New England had an operating loss of $15.2 million for March.

Lifespan runs the network of hospitals that includes three teaching hospitals affiliated with The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, the largest being Rhode Island Hospital. It also runs Hasbro Children’s Hospital and The Miriam Hospital, as well as Bradley Hospital, the country’s first psychiatric hospital for children. Newport Hospital and Gateway Healthcare are also part of the Lifespan system.

Care New England is the parent organization of Butler Hospital, a psychiatric hospital, as well as Kent Hospital, the Providence Center, Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island, and the VNA of Care New England. Care New England also has a teaching and research affiliation with Brown University’s medical school, through Butler, Kent and Women & Infants hospitals.

For more than a decade, the two health care systems have talked about a formal merger, to no end. The most recent effort dissolved about a year ago, after the two systems were encouraged by Gov. Gina M. Raimondo to sit down.

Care New England had previously been exploring a merger with Partners Healthcare, a Boston-based healthcare system, but Partners withdrew after Raimondo asked the local systems to discuss a local merger.

Any such agreement would require state and regulatory approval.

(UPDATED throughout.)

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for PBN. Contact her at Follow her on Twitter @MaryF_MacDonald.