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Health commissioner says hospitals need change for survival

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MASSENA - Northern New York hospitals like Massena Memorial are being given an edict by the state’s commissioner of health - change or we’ll change for you, according to a member of the Massena Memorial Hospital Board of Managers.

“He suggested that if we did not begin to cooperate and work with others, that in two to three years stand-alone hospitals will not survive,” Tina Buckley told board members Monday night.

Ms. Buckley said she had been attending a conference over the weekend to learn more about changes in health care when Nirav R. Shah, the state commissioner of health, called a special meeting.

“He called all of the 18 hospitals and nursing homes in Northern New York,” she said.

Ms. Buckley said Dr. Shah opened the meeting by “discussing the safety net for local hospitals and nursing homes in Northern New York is in very grave condition.”

Suggesting that hospitals begin to work with each other, Dr. Shah told them that the Department of Health was “encouraging partnerships and alliances to accelerate the movement in much the same manner as they did in the Brooklyn hospital” - where Interfaith Medical Center is seeking approval from bankruptcy court to close because of finances.

The commissioner plans to form three work groups, including one that will discuss how to sustain health care in the north country, and is requesting that three executive staff members from each hospital work with the Department of Health, according to Ms. Buckley.

“They will convene immediately and meet every two weeks. He kept reinforcing over and over that time is of the essence. Some facilities sitting in that room had as a little as two days of cash on hand,” she said.

MMH Board Chairman Andrew T. Spanburgh said the commissioner’s definitions of north country hospitals that would fall under this study would every facility including and in between Samaritan Medical Center in Watertown, Champlain Valley Physician’s Hospital in Plattsburgh and the hospital in Glens Falls.

“He was very specific that it is a regional approach. We did not get into his face about us being a municipal. That points out one thing. We were summoned. They have the keys and we went,” he said.

MMH CEO Charles F. Fahd II said this was the second time Dr. Shah has met with the north country hospitals’ CEOs and chairmen. The first was about two years ago and the message was the same, Mr. Fahd said - “You need to work together, you need to get together, you need to start affiliating, collaborating, in some cases merging if you have the ability to do that.”

The commissioner’s directive, he said, was “we had to somehow start to work with our neighbors.”

But as a municipal hospital, Mr. Fahd said they don’t have the ability legally to affiliate, collaborate or merge with anyone, one of the reasons they’re now looking at becoming a private, non-profit facility.

Mr. Fahd said Dr. Shah has admitted his unfamiliarity with north country hospitals and their particular concerns.

“He will admit he is not very knowledgeable about the north country. His idea of the north country probably ends at Lake George. He really doesn’t have a clue what it’s like in Massena. I don’t think he’s ever been to Massena or Canton or Potsdam or Ogdensburg or any of those places, so he really doesn’t have a good idea of what it’s like,” he said.

Mr. Fahd said that the commissioner needed to know that St. Lawrence County was the largest county in the state in terms of square miles and Massena has Alcoa, who he called the single largest employer of any city or town in St. Lawrence County.

“That should grab his ear. There’s a thousand jobs there. We’re not talking about a couple hundred people here. We’re talking a very large industry we believe is going to require the presence of a hospital in the town where they are providing the services. A critical access hospital or Band Aid station isn’t going to make it,” he said.

Mr. Fahd said he has talked with Alcoa representatives, who said they will work with the hospital to ensure it remains an acute care facility.

“I think we have to work with the commissioner. I think we also have to educate him about our current status,” he suggested. “He’s just looking for smaller facilities to get with bigger ones for economies of scale. The only thing he is interested in is collaborating, affiliating, merge, get bigger, get better and as quickly as you can possibly do that, do it. You’ve heard me say this before, we would benefit if we had the ability to partner with larger organizations. I think that’s still the case.”

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