With the government aggressively targeting cuts in health care services, many major providers are teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. In response to the government’s policy to shrink payments to nursing facilities, Atlanta-based Mariner Health Care decided to do some aggressive cost-cutting of its own. “We’ve been hit hard by government cost reductions,” said Karl Collins, VP of technical services and infrastructure for Mariner Health Care. “So every dollar we can take out of overhead is a dollar that we can put back into delivering healthcare services to our customers.”

Venture capital dried up
As the third-largest provider of long-term health care services in the United States, Mariner operates over 300 facilities in 23 states. Like any large business, one of Mariner’s major recurring expenses was its communications network. “We were a large MCI frame-relay network customer,” said Collins. “But I wasn’t happy with the cost. I wasn’t happy with the support. And I wasn’t happy with the flexibility.” So three years ago, Mariner redirected 40 percent of its business to a hungrier, more accommodating small provider, Exario Networks. The decision saved the company several million dollars a year.

Then in early 2002, Mariner got a phone call from Exario. The venture capitalists had cut off funding. The company was liquidating its assets and in six weeks it would officially shut down operations. “We always knew there would be a risk in going with a small player that was on venture capital funding,” said Collins, “so we had an exit strategy in place just in case our provider became a casualty of the telecom industry meltdown.” Even so, six weeks was a very short time to transition 7,800 users to a new provider.

Mariner was still determined to reap the benefits of aligning with a small player. The company continued its search and soon discovered Los Angeles-based ClearPath Networks. “We didn’t want to jump off of a sinking ship into a lifeboat that took us to another boat that was also in the process of sinking,” confessed Collins. So the company did some serious due diligence and discovered that ClearPath was privately held by a single billionaire investor who wasn’t likely to desert the telecom industry as had the venture capitalists for Exario. Plus, ClearPath had the technology and experience (many of its employees were ex-WorldCom staff) to help Mariner cut even more from its network overhead while delivering a broader range of services.

The task at hand
“With our headquarters in Atlanta, our data center in Houston, and more than 7,800 users in 23 states, we needed to change our communications model from a distributed environment to one that was more centralized,” explained Eric Hall, WAN project manager-voice/telecom for Mariner. “ClearPath Network’s iVPN and broadband access services provide our facilities with speedier, real-time Internet access to applications (like enterprise resource planning programs) housed on a centralized server protected by state-of-the-art firewalls and security features. Best of all, by reducing our reliance on a frame-relay network, we get more efficiency at a lower cost.”

Mariner’s original frame-relay network was point-to-point from its remote facilities to its corporate data center in Houston. With ClearPath, Mariner now has a mesh IP-routed network, giving the company network redundancy and disaster recovery capabilities it never had before. Because all facility connections go over the ClearPath fiber optic backbone, the Houston data center is no longer the core of the network. In case of disaster, traffic is automatically routed to the disaster recovery data center in Atlanta without delay.

Because of their locations, some Mariner facilities still need to remain on MCI frame-relay technology. But since ClearPath now wholesales MCI for Mariner’s local loops, the health care services company is able to negotiate better contracts for those frame-relay connections. In going from retail to a wholesale customer of MCI, Mariner saves an additional $40K a month or nearly $500K a year.

“That’s in spite of doubling our bandwidth and adding additional services,” said Collins. He refers to the decision to expand from 128K to 256K and, in some cases, 384K. Mariner has also added Internet access through the private network, monitored by ClearPath’s iGuardian URL filtering service. The content-filtering feature protects the company from the liability of employees attempting to access Internet sites with questionable sexual, racial, or political content using the company network.

The HIPAA factor
Since Mariner operates under the stringent patient confidentiality requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the ClearPath private network is especially important to assure compliance with government regulations. “We are going through our own dedicated virtual routers,” explained Collins. “So we can’t see, nor can anybody else see, any of the other traffic on the network.” Because it’s a private internal network, Mariner doesn’t need to maintain encryption internally between different computers at different Mariner facilities. ClearPath has also implemented firewalls and other transparent security measures to protect Mariner from external access to its flow of data. In cases in which specific Mariner facilities cannot get a dedicated local loop but can get public Internet access, ClearPath installs a device to manage a secure, encrypted VPN tunnel connection over the Internet and back into the ClearPath backbone.

Network monitoring bonus
Another advantage of going with ClearPath is that Mariner can monitor and manage the network through ClearPath’s online iNOC tool. Using iNOC, Mariner quickly and easily tracks account activities, requests technical support, and configures ClearPath services—including iGuardian. “The virtual NOC has helped us achieve significant cost reductions,” said Collins, “because we can see what’s going on the network now. We never had this visibility with MCI.” As a result, Mariner’s MCI bill has gone from 100 pages to eight. And the cost of processing that bill has virtually vanished.

Transition is a snap
Collins reports that the transition to the ClearPath backbone is going exceptionally well. “We’re basically using the same circuits and the same equipment,” he said. “We’re just redirecting the traffic.” According to Collins, a typical cutover is almost transparent to Mariner users because there’s no more than a 15-minute disruption at any facility.

Collins praises ClearPath’s agility in helping Mariner expedite the transition from the failing Exario to a secure and more robust networking environment. “They were very committed to making that happen without our users being aware of any transition,” said Collins. More importantly, despite moving from an all frame-relay network to a much more sophisticated IP network with greater bandwidth and more services, Mariner has been able to save several million dollars a year in overhead. “That’s money we’ve been able to devote towards healthcare,” said Collins, “which, after all, is the purpose of our business.”