WOONSOCKET — State regulators care so little about jobs and the local economy that they're willing to enforce an arbitrary deadline to terminate consideration of Landmark Medical Center's application to merge with Steward Health Care System, the hospital's employees union charged Tuesday.
Chris Callaci, general counsel for the United Nurses and Allied Professionals, said the handling of the application by the state Department of Health and the Office of the Attorney General has been marked by such a “monumental failure of leadership” that Gov. Chafee should step in to rectify the situation.
City officials said later that Chafee has already agreed to a meeting on the issue, which they requested on behalf of UNAP.
“Landmark is the second-largest employer in Woonsocket, has one of the busiest ERs in the state, and serves tens of thousands of patients a year,” said Callaci. “Steward is ready to buy Landmark and run it as a full-service community hospital; yet the Department of Health is considering pulling the plug on the deal, and has no backup plan.
“That's a monumental failure of leadership if there ever was one,” said Callaci.
Callaci spoke during a press briefing in the lobby of the Cass Avenue hospital Tuesday, accompanied by Jan Peso, president of the Landmark-based UNAP Local 5067, and Linda McDonald, state president of UNAP, as some three dozen union members looked on.
It was the latest salvo in a rhetorical volley that began last Thursday, when state Health Director Michael Fine said he had allowed Landmark and Steward one last chance to file a complete application, extending the deadline by two weeks, to Jan. 11.
DOH already pushed the deadline ahead once before, in mid-November.
While DOH and the Attorney General's Office issued the statement jointly, Callaci said it was “disingenuous” of DOH spokeswoman Annemarie Beardsworth to portray the new deadline as an attempt to work collaboratively with the parties.
Beardsworth had told the Providence Journal that DOH didn't want to “pull the plug” on the application” because it “starts the ball rolling on a lot of other questions...We want to make sure we give them every possible opportunity.”
But Callaci said that when union leaders read that statement “our jaws dropped.” They took the remarks as evidence that DOH has “drawn a line in the sand” and is seriously considering making a decision that would inevitably lead to the collapse of the hospital, a massive loss of jobs and a body blow to the city's economy.
“The employees have done their share to preserve the hospital” by making major concession in wages, benefits and personnel, said McDonald. “We are asking for the appropriate leadership from the DOH and other regulatory agencies to review and accept the application before them.”
Callaci said the statutory review under the Hospital Conversions Act appears to be operating according to a markedly different set of parameters than that applied to the proposed merger of Care New England and Lifespan several years ago. In the latter case, the review of the application went “on and on and on” before regulators eventually called it quits.
Now, in a case where the stakes involve a distressed hospital, DOH is willing to walk away after two deadline extensions amounting to just a few weeks' extra time. Moreover, he says, Steward is “a known quantity” with a proven track record of turning around troubled hospitals in Massachusetts. The Boston-based group took over six community hospitals previously owned by Caritas Christi Health Care earlier this year, and has since purchased other hospitals in the Bay State.
“With all the information that's out there and with Steward being a known quantity,” Callaci said, “the regulators should be able to wrap this up.”
Beardsworth was not available for comment, but DOH reaffirmed its decision to terminate the application by the new deadline if Steward doesn't provide the requested information on time.
“According to the procedure we should have rejected the application as incomplete,” said DOH spokeswoman Andrea Bagnald Degos. “Right now what we're saying is we're going to honor the statute. We're still giving them a chance to complete the application so we can meet the needs of the community.”
DOH won't say what information is lacking in the application at this point, because those details are confidential under the HCA. But Bagnald Degos said the hospitals did not ask for the extension and neither has complained about being pressured to hurry up the process.
“We haven't heard any complaints from Steward or Landmark,” she said, adding that DOH anticipates they'll meet the new deadline.
Indeed, while UNAP and DOH traded barbs, the hospitals involved in the proposed merger tried to stay out of the fray.
Chris Murphy, a spokeswoman for Steward, did not return telephone calls. And William Fischer, his counterpart at Landmark, politely declined to weigh in.
“I think it's a very complex process,” said Fischer. “I know labor has taken a position on this matter. Our focus is on the application. I'm not going to enter this debate between labor and the regulators.”
Fischer did say that the parties had submitted “12,000 pages” of documents requested by DOH. He declined to say what more they are seeking, but he said it is the intent of Landmark “to meet the deadline and to answer any and all outstanding questions that they have.”
Economic Development Director Matt Wojcik said Mayor Leo T. Fontaine is so alarmed by the latest developments surrounding the merger that he asked for a meeting with Chafee to discuss the handling of the application by state regulators. The governor agreed to a meeting but officials were still waiting to hear from the governor's office about scheduling details.
Wojcik said he is worried that the focus of state regulators has become too narrowly trained on health care at the expense of Landmark's role as an economic engine and job creator for the city -- important policy considerations which the governor should be concerned about. Over 1,200 people are employed by Landmark and its affiliate, the Rehabilitation Hospital of Rhode Island in North Smithfield.
“It's the governor's role to make sure they haven't lost sight of the overall policy direction of his administration,” said Wojcik.
Landmark, saying it was on the brink of financial collapse, filed for Superior Court receivership in June 2008. Pawtucket lawyer Jonathan Savage, appointed by the court to restore the hospital to solvency, quickly deemed a merger with a financially sound buyer to be the hospital's only chance for survival.
After a number of setbacks, Judge Michael Silverstein finally approved the proposed deal with Steward in May. Mindful of the hospital's role as a vital provider of easily accessible health care in the region, Silverstein urged regulators to embark on a review of the merger application as quickly as possible.