By ANDY GARDNER
About 50 citizens and CSEA representatives packed into the town hall for Tuesday’s Massena Town Council meeting discussing concerns over Massena Memorial Hospital’s potential shift to becoming a private non-profit entity. They bantered for over an hour with board members during the public comment portion at the meeting’s start.
Keep the doors open
Town board members and the citizen’s coalition seemed to agree that no matter what happens, the ultimate goal is to keep the hospital’s doors open, regardless of it being a public or private entity.
“The goal is to keep the place open,” Councilman John Macaulay said. “It’s your goal, it’s our goal.”
He added that whichever path it goes down, the state could still come in and shutter the doors if it’s balance sheet goes into the red, which projections indicate could happen in as little as 18 months. Macaulay, reading from MMH financial reports, noted that they had about $15 million on-hand in December 2010 and on July 31 of this year had $4.1 million.
MMH CEO Charles Fahd has previously stated that the hospital is looking at losing roughly $15 million due to cuts in reimbursements and federal spending, but CSEA Vice President Wayne Lincoln told the board “privatization will not solve the reimbursement crisis.”
“The hospital being in the red will be the deciding factor,” Macaulay said. “When we have a negative balance, the taxpayers will have to take over … or close it.”
Town Supervisor Joe Gray noted that no taxpayer money thusfar has gone to support MMH.
Mary Mittiga of Massena made comments noting that there is no guarantee that the hospital will remain open in light of Albany’s directives for various entities to consolidate.
“Consolidation is the buzzword,” Councilman Albert Nicola said, noting that schools, hospitals, and eventually courts will come under such scrutiny. “This governor seems determined to consolidate.”
Responding to fears from audience members that the act of privatization will mean the hospital closes or if it stays open the quality of patient care goes down, Macaulay pointed to Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh and Fletcher Allen Healthcare in Burlington, Vt. Both are private, non-profit entities and are often praised for their quality care.
“There is no evidence the hospital will go away if it becomes private … there is no evidence that if we go private, patient care will be sacrificed,” Macaulay said.
Councilman Charles Raiti went on to suggest that the MMH employees and unions speak with General Motors employees who managed to save the plant from being shut down in 1987.
“Our union and our hospital has got to do what those guys at GM did,” he said, adding that the union meet with state officials to look into working around negotiation restrictions that come along with being a public hospital.
CSEA Vice President Wayne Lincoln said he thinks the economic impact on Massena would be devastating if the hospital were to go private, even worse if it were to close down entirely.
“It’s worth a little bit of struggle and fight to keep these things running,” Lincoln said. “Dare I say even if the taxpayers had to pay something for a year or two to keep this hospital here … it’s going to make a big dent if it goes private.”
Raiti noted that every $500,000 would raise property taxes by $1 per $1,000 of assessed value.
“The question that keeps haunting me is, ‘Why are there only two public hospitals left in the state?” Gray said.
Not happy with Fahd, administration
Some claimed they have been crafting ways to save enough money to avoid a necessity to go private, which fall on deaf ears at administration. Many were irate with Fahd’s recently taking a $45,000 raise – nearly 20 percent of his former salary.
“Fahd taking a $50,000 raise on top of a $245,000 salary makes people have a little bit of a bad taste in their mouth,” Lincoln said.
Several members of the coalition said they feel that although pay at MMH is adequate to live on, no one is getting rich, except Fahd.
Others were critical of his approving construction of the doctors’ suite across the street from the hospital, which audience member and former county legislator Charles Romeigh described as “a Taj Mahal” that “takes tax dollars” from the community. The space is tax-exempt, whereas the physicians would pay taxes on a private practice.
Raiti pointed to a recent National Public Radio report stating that the trend throughout the U.S. is for doctors to affiliate with a hospital rather than establish a private practice.
“Unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, the doctors in this country do not want to set up a practice anymore,” Raiti said. “They want to work with the hospital and make the hospital deal with those problems (associated with private practice).”
Sean Egan, director of member benefits and community relations for CSEA, was critical of the MMH board spending $100,000 to hire Hancock Estabrook, LLP to study the potential of going non-profit.
“How are you supposed to get facts and figures if you don’t hire somebody to do the research?” Gray said.
Lincoln said union members and heads have been coming up with ways to ease off on health insurance cost, which he said is higher than retirement costs, but they fall on deaf ears at the administrative level.
“We’ve worked for at least four years to try to negotiate lower health insurance costs and they refuse,” he said.
Insurance, pension concerns
Shaylyn Frederick, a senior account clerk with 26 years at MMH, is worried about losing her retirement package if the facility goes private. A 26-year veteran, she will be eligible for tier-six benefits in four years but will lose it if MMH doesn’t stay public.
“I can pay into a 401K anywhere. I just can’t fathom us that have worked there so long having this happen to us … I won’t hesitate to move, put my house up for sale, and go where my family is (in Colorado),” Frederick said, to a throng of applause.
With regard to health insurance, Lincoln pointed to Canton-Potsdam Hospital where he says his research revealed the health plan are so expensive that only four employees opt to be covered by it. According to Lincoln, they pay $700 per month for an individual and $1,500 per month for a family. Some audience members could be heard saying that equates to a week’s pay or more for them.
Lincoln also pointed to Alice Hyde Medical Center in Malone, which doesn’t accept the plan it offers its employees.