May 04, 2008

How Will Hospital Closing Impact Union County & Who Is Stepping Up to the Plate For the People

Monday afternoon I set up a fresh pot of coffee and went to my computer to review Emails while I waited for the java to finish dripping. My Black and Decker pot makes some gurgling sounds heard throughout the apartment, the signal that the brewing has finished, at that precise moment my screen went black and the kitchen down the hall went dark. My immediate thought was “Rats”; my husband will kill me for overloading the circuits yet again. An occurrence that usually takes place in the summer when the air conditioners are all humming and one has to turn one unit off to brew a pot of coffee or use a blow dryer, I snapped to reality when it sunk in that this was not the case. That got me off the hook as the culprit and saved my husband a trip from our third floor walkup to the basement to reset the breakers. Determining that it was either our entire building or our part of town, and that surely the electric would be on again shortly, I looked out the window, coffee cup in hand, to watch the spectacle on the street below.

Living on North Ave. (Route 28) has always been interesting to say the least but with a power outage and no traffic signals operational the next hour and a half of surveying the stalled traffic at what is a peak commuting hour got me to thinking about those services which we have come to rely on everyday as just being there and being necessary. The day before the power outage that stalled traffic from Westfield thru Roselle Park I had been talking to some individuals at a street fair who are fighting the closure of Muhlenberg Hospital in Plainfield. A fixture for some 130 yrs, the hospital has been providing those services that area residents rely on everyday to keep their lives running smoothly and like the traffic jam on North Avenue created by the power outage, one has to question what will happen if the hospital closes in June, and how will that closure impact on not only the residents but on the other hospitals in the region. The group has been telling the story of the multi-faceted Muhlenberg situation and they are attempting to get investors to buy shares in an effort to purchase the hospital and keep it operational. They also are calling for assistance from legislators to use their influence and resources to help keep this much needed community asset offering its varied services to the public.

Healthcare and the associated financial matters of hospitals in New Jersey are in the news daily as several facilities have recently closed citing money troubles specifically the cost of mandated charity care on their bottom line. Gov. Corzine recently announced cuts in state funding to hospitals as he attempts to jam his state budget through the legislature without making any real cuts in expenses in state government operating costs. And, hospitals have morphed into cash generating companies as divisions of healthcare conglomerates expected to perform. In the case of Muhlenberg owned by the Solaris Health System, a community based non profit created in 1997; they have cited $17 million in operating losses due to reduced reimbursements by Medicare, Medicaid and state charity care as the reasons for closing the facility. Solaris also operates JFK Hospital in Edison, click here to learn more about Solaris and their services.

Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center has been described as a 396-bed acute care facility that provides inpatient and outpatient services in all major medical specialties. Other specialized services include a complete array of cardiac services (including emergency angioplasty), a Bar iatric Surgery Center, Vein Center, Lithotripsy Center, Wound Care Center, hem dialysis, home care, hospice and adult medical day care. It is the sort of resource that communities dream of having available for their emergencies as well as routine care. In addition to their many community wellness programs, they host New Jersey’s premier cancer center.

As with anything that affects the community politics is part of the mix with the Muhlenberg closing, there have been calls from the public that local, county and state legislators haven’t done enough to prevent the closing and that may well be the case. Located in Plainfield, in New Jersey’s 22nd legislative district, the Queen City is home to Assemblyman Gerry Green. Green is the chair of the local Democratic Committee and is said to control what happens in Plainfield. At this point in time he seems to have himself stuck in an extremely awkward position as on one hand he would be expected to advocate for the residents of the city and work to keep the beleaguered hospital afloat. But, on the other hand he would also, if only subconsciously, be trying to please his campaign contributors. It has been said that Green along with his protégé, Plainfield Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, haven’t come through for their constituents who will have to travel to Rahway Hospital, JFK Edison or Overlook in Summit for their medical care, these facilities are not easily accessible using public transportation.

Assemblyman Green’s running mate in the last couple of elections, Assemblywoman and Congressional candidate Linda Stender has been conspicuously silent on the issue of the hospital’s closing, leaving one to ponder what is up with her. Stender and Green have been the beneficiaries of campaign contributions from executives at Solaris to the tune of $1700, with the bulk of the money donated in 2007. Further, Stender received another $500 in Sept. 2007 for her upcoming congressional campaign from Mr. John McGee CEO of Solaris Health Systems. Could their loyalty to a financial supporter be getting in the way of their making a major stink over the hospital’s closing? Assemblyman Green has almost begrudgingly succumbed to local pressure and taken action and assembled a task force to formulate recommendations to handle the fall out and possibility an arrangement to save/merge services. See Courier News article of May 2, 2008

According to the March 6th agenda meeting of the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders vice Chair Al Mirabella asked for an update regarding the announcement that Muhlenberg would be closing, at that time the closure was projected to be August. Rookie Freeholder Ryland Van Blake, a Plainfield resident, “implored the Board to help keep the doors open and lend support in any way possible.” Chairman Angel Estrada “commented that there is nothing that can be done on the County level to help Muhlenberg keep its doors open”. He added that the Board could certainly pass a resolution asking the State to develop a regional plan addressing the hospital closing and the pending closings, and Van Black said he would speak with Assemblyman Green to see what support the County can lend. Minutes of the March 20th meeting show that the freeholders discussed potential litigation regarding the Muhlenberg Hospital in Executive Session, could there be something there but later in the month resolution #2008-356 opposing the closing of Muhlenberg Regional Hospital in Plainfield was approved with copies to be sent to the Plainfield Mayor and Council at the request of Van Blake.

The County’s Office of Emergency Management Director, Frank Guzzo, made an important observation at the March 6th Freeholder meeting when he commented that “this closing affects the county’s disaster preparedness plans, which will have to be reviewed and revised.” County residents could have cause for concern as this is the second hospital closing in Union County in approximately a year and it was pointed out that Raritan Bay Hospital in Perth Amboy will also be closing its doors.

Just recently a candidate for the Plainfield City Council, Olive Lynch, assembled a meeting of elected officials from surrounding communities which will feel the full impact of the hospitals closing, neither Green nor Robinson-Briggs showed up. According to the Blog “Plainfield Today”, click here for the complete story and other tidbits on the closure Attendees were given an eye-opening presentation on Solaris' moves over the years of profitable operations out of Muhlenberg to JFK -- radiology, pathology, and ob-gyn. Plans to move cardiac rehab to JFK were stymied by massive opposition from Muhlenberg's cardiac rehab user community. In addition, it was reported Solaris has sold off its dialysis unit (the property subdivision was previously reported here) and, most recently, its cardiac catheterization lab.

As one participant said, "Basically, what we have here is a non-profit entity behaving like a corporate raider."

Where is Muhlenberg Now?

The hospital closing appears to be moving forward rapidly, originally slated for closure in August some employees have been informed that they can expect to loose their jobs in June. Some services have already been moved to JFK and Solaris has also quietly subdivided and is disposing an adjoining piece of real estate. Jerry Green is scrambling to make up for lost time by attempting to get some kind of legislation through in a manic effort to save face and votes next time he is up for reelection and Robinson-Briggs has for all intents and purposes done nothing. Assemblywoman Linda Stender has remained quiet and her cronies on the UC Freeholder Board have taken a hands off approach by simply passing a resolution opposing the closure and sending it off to of all people Robinson-Briggs, like that will help when there is a disaster in the county requiring extensive medical expertise to treat the masses.

There does appear to be a glimmer of hope coming out of Green’s “Accidental Task Force” as Somerset Medical Center, Somerville may consider a partnership with some other investor to save the hospitals acute care services. Or perhaps the citizens group which has sought outside help and presented the full picture can pull off a save in the eleventh hour. It is hard to imagine the region without Muhlenberg Hospital and just like the power outage we will never really understand the full impact of the closure of the medical center until it takes place and than it will be too late.

Click here to see what Solaris recently sold off

Click here for Citizens Group info

Click here for the full story on Robinson-Briggs no show