NORTH BAY -- The expansion of a Marin physician’s network further into Sonoma County is a key step in assisting independent health care districts integrate services, and the alignment it will create at district hospitals is “critical to the long-term success,” according to Sonoma County’s top public health official.

The Marin-Sonoma IPA’s planned expansion, including physicians from Santa Rosa Memorial, Healdsburg District and Palm Drive hospitals, is seen as an early development in the formation of accountable care organizations, or ACOs, which are encouraged by last year’s federal health overhaul as a means to reduce cost by preventing duplicative care.

“The expansion of the Marin IPA into Sonoma County and affiliation with local hospitals represents an important first step in meeting the goals of health care reform -- an integrated model of care improves patient health outcomes and reduces cost,” said Rita Scardaci, director of Sonoma County Department of Health Services.

In addition to potentially lowering costs, the expanded Marin-Sonoma IPA could help smaller hospitals attract and retain primary care physicians.

In lieu of health care reform, a shortage of physicians is anticipated as millions more Americans become insured. Some 45,000 new patients are expected to become insured in Sonoma County, according to Health Services.

“The Marin-Sonoma IPA and other ‘accountable care organizations’ present the opportunity to develop new competencies and infrastructure, align strategic and financial objectives, and establish a shared vision and culture that supports a fully integrated, coordinated model of care,” Ms. Scardaci said.

While the expanded physician network is intended to achieve efficiencies such as those affiliated with Sutter Health or Kaiser Permanente, it differs from such organizations, which are foundations, not networks.

A foundation typically will employ the physicians and staff, whereas a network typically serves as a corporate structure for negotiating and administering contracts with health maintenance organizations for member doctors.

By adding more physicians from Sonoma County, Marin-Sonoma IPA could grow its network to as many as 500 primary care physicians and specialists. It already had affiliated physicians at Petaluma and Sonoma Valley hospitals, as well as Marin General and Novato Community hospitals.