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Town Board: MMH privatization study still in early stages

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MASSENA - Waving a copy of Wednesday’s Daily Courier-Observer, Gloria Dupree notified town officials Wednesday night, she was there to talk about the proposed privatization of Massena Memorial Hospital.

“I’m here to talk about this,” she said. “Mr. (MMH Chief Executive Officer Charles F.) Fahd is stating that in order to save the hospital, it has to go private.”

Mr. Fahd had shared his concerns about the hospital’s future at Tuesday’s meeting of the Massena Rotary Club.

She then ripped the hospital board’s decision to build a new medical office building across the street, during times when the hospital has major financial challenges.

“He could be $2 million in the black if he hadn’t built that building across the street, which is 80 percent empty,” she said, referring to the recently opened medical office building.

Ms. Dupree also noted Mr. Fahd said merging with another hospital was not an option and current pensions costs, although there may be savings around the corner, are unsustainable.

“He doesn’t talk about the impact on the community if people can’t live here without a pension,” she said, noting that alternative suggestions from the hospital’s employee unions have fallen on deaf ears.

“When the hospital was built, the town built it. It was built by the people of the town,” she said, asking town officials who has the final say on whether the hospital privatizes.

“The town board has final say,” Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said, giving an answer that didn’t please Ms. Dupree.

“It’s not fair for the board to make the decision for all of us,” she said. “I’m at the age where I can’t afford to not have a hospital.”

Mr. Dupree asked if it was possible to have a town-wide referendum.

“That’s why we’re elected, but if you want a referendum, I suppose there is a mechanism to do that,” Mr. Gray said.

Ms. Dupree also expressed concerns that should the hospital privatize her insurance may no longer be accepted in Massena.

“It will be the exact same distinction as those hospitals,” Councilman John F. Macaulay said, referring to Canton-Potsdam Hospital and Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center, Ogdensburg. “You don’t see it that way, but that’s the way it is.”

Mr. Macaulay noted there are only two municipal hospitals currently running in the state, Massena Memorial Hospital and Lewis County General Hospital.

Councilman Charles A. “Chuck” Raiti then explained that any decision on the future of the hospital is a long ways down the road.

“This board has not been given any information to make any decision on the hospital,” he said. “There is no decision being made today, tomorrow, or probably for a long time.”

Clyde Leffer, who works at the hospital, begged to differ.

“This is being pushed through very quickly,” he said, explaining that’s the impression that he and many other employees of the hospital have.

“I’ll go on the record in front of the media, God and everybody else. It is not far along,” Mr. Gray said. “If I’m lying to you, you can come up and kick me in the shins and call me a liar.”

Councilman Albert N. Nicola agreed.

“As far as I know, the hospital is hiring a consulting firm. This (privatization) is one of many options they will have,” he said. “There is a process that has to be followed.”

Mr. Macaulay then asked Ms. Dupree what she would suggest, noting the hospital has lost $1.8 million through the first half of the year, putting them on pace to lose more than $3.5 million this year alone.

“I don’t think they’ll end up in the red,” she said.

“That is not an good answer,” Mr. Macaulay replied.

“Why are they keeping the dialysis center open if it’s losing money?,” she asked, explaining if she ever needed dialysis she would go to Ogdensburg to get that service.

“Why would you say you would go to Ogdensburg?” Mr. Macaulay asked, before Mr. Gray said there are people in town who have told him they don’t feel like the hospital is even worth saving at all.

“There are people who say, ‘If it can’t survive, close it,’” he said. “I think that’s a terrible idea, but there are people thinking that way.”

Mr. Raiti said he thinks one of the problems is there is not enough factual information about the process being made available to the public.

“What bothers me is factual information is not being publicized,” he said.

Mr. Macaulay agreed, noting that in some cases inaccurate information is being circulated.

“There is information on the My MMH petition that has went around that is factually incorrect,” he said.

Mr. Macaulay, who worked for GM in Massena until the plnt was closed, said people need to understand people are working right now to make sure Massena Memorial Hospital doesn’t meet that same fate.

“I worked for General Motors and people need to understand what happens when a company goes in the red. It goes bankrupt,” he said. “We don’t want that to happen.”

Mr. Nicola noted that much in the same way that the state Education Department is pushing school mergers the state Department of Health is doing the same thing with hospitals, only according to law, public hospitals cannot merge.

Mr. Macaulay even noted the mergers cross state lines, as Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh has a relationship with the Fletcher-Allen Medical Center in Burlington, Vt.

Barbara Wing, who works at the hospital, said she thinks people are worried about how the proposed changes are going to affect them.

“I think everybody is worried about benefit cuts, staffing cuts and salary cuts,” she said.

Mr. Macaulay responded, “Losing money on a yearly basis will make that happen much faster than expected.”

Mr. Gray noted that during one troubling period for the hospital the town’s taxpayers actually picked up a pension bill for the hospital. More recently, they extended a $2 million line of credit to the hospital, but Mr. Gray said that line of credit was never used.

Mr. Raiti, who said, “I’m not a proponent of anything,” encouraged everyone on both sides of the issue to calm down and take a step back.

“Everyone needs to dial back on the emotion,” he said. “We have to get factual information out there.”

Mr. Raiti then noted for every $500,000 of support the town would potentially provide the hospital would be equal to a $1 tax rate increase.

“That’s the kind of fact people need to know,” he said. “2008 put us in a whole different world. We’re still trying to work out of it.”

Mr. Raiti also noted that pension benefits being paid right now are based on the less than stellar stock market from two years ago.

“We’re paying based on what happened two years ago,” he said. “The stock market is doing pretty good right now, but it’s going to take two years for ue to see those benefits.”

He also said that’s he’s not even sure if privatization will end up being recommended to the town board by the hospital board.

“One (hospital) board member told me, ‘I’m not sure that privatization is a good deal.’”

Mr. Macaulay encouraged people to stop being so negative when information regarding the potential privatization is released, noting representatives from the town board have told hospital officials that they need to be forthcoming with information.

“We, as a board, have said them to try and communicate as mush as possible,” he said. “What we don’t want to do is be so negative because of a newspaper article that they stop.”

Mr. Leffler asked why the state’s comptroller’s office couldn’t come in and do an audit of the hospital’s finances.

“They have an audit done every year,” Mr. Gray said, to which Ms. Dupree quietly replied, “They probably have two sets of books.”

“I heard what you whispered,” Mr. Gray said. “If that’s the case than someone’s going to jail.”

While the hospital may be in financial trouble and exploring privatization now, Mr. Raiti said that the Massena community has been “lucky for a long time.”

Mr. Gray noted that the Clifton-Fine Hospital recently went private saving taxpayers in those communities $100,000.

“That’s what we’re trying to avoid,” he said, referring to taxpayer support of the hospital. “We understand people are concerned and upset.”

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