WOONSOCKET – Boston-based Steward Health Care System has hired a prominent government lobbyist for assistance in dealing with state regulators handling its application to buy financially struggling Landmark Medical Center.
Former Warwick Mayor Joseph Walsh of Government Strategies Inc. has already asked some legislators to rally constituents in support of the merger, which may be the Cass Avenue hospital’s only hope for survival.
“What I’m looking to do is make sure the people in Providence don’t get the impression that the community takes the hospital for granted,” said State Sen. Marc A. Cote (D-Dist. 24, Woonsocket, North Smithfield). “They need to know that we really do care that we have a community hospital in Woonsocket.”
Cote issued a press release with telephone numbers for Gov. Chafee and Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts after he was contacted by an associated of Walsh. The senator urged constituents to send the political leaders “a message of support for Steward and Landmark” and to “respectfully ask that the Governor and Lt. Governor do all that they can to save our community hospital in the weeks ahead.”
Walsh enters the fray over the merger a week after Landmark’s biggest employees’ union, the United Nurses and Allied Professionals, began suggesting that state regulators were ready to “pull the plug” on the deal prematurely. At the same time, UNAP called on Gov. Chafee to hold a meeting with the regulators and get the deal back on track.
That meeting will be held today, according to Cote. Beyond officials from the regulatory agencies involved – the Department of Health and the Office of the Attorney General, Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine, UNAP leaders, State Director of Health and Human Services Steven Costantino and representatives of Steward and Landmark are among those expected to attend.
Since calling for the meeting, UNAP purchased a series of prominently placed newspaper ads calling on Chafee to “save hundreds of good jobs and a treasured community hospital.”
“Rhode Island regulators are on the verge of failing the people of Rhode Island, and the consequences will be dire,” the ad says. “Steward has gone through the rigorous regulatory approval in Massachusetts and passed with flying colors. Yet our regulators can’t seem to get the job done in Rhode Island.”
The ad closes with a reminder to Chafee of his own words during a visit to the hospital last year: “It’s absolutely essential, I believe, that this entity remain here.”
Walsh also attended a strategy session at City Hall with members of UNAP and a delegate from U.S. Rep. David Cicilline’s office last Friday, according to Economic Development Director Matthew Wojcik.
Like Cote, Wojcik too said it’s time for anyone who thinks the hospital is vital to the economy and the robust delivery of health care services in the area to let their political leaders know.
“If they want this hospital to exist, they need to call the governor,” he said. “The people on the street, the people that use this hospital, they’re the people that need to be more vocal.”
Though he is often described as someone who likes to work behind the scenes, Walsh is considered to be one of the most active and well-connected lobbyists in the halls of state government. The website GoLocalProv.com included him on its list of the top 10 highest paid lobbyists in Rhode Island in 2010, reporting Walsh garnered some $272,000 in client fees, which was about a third of the highest-earning lobbyist.
A partial list of Walsh’s clients include the Rhode Island Health Care Association, an advocacy group for nursing homes; the Rhode Island Greyhound Association; Gilbane Building Co.; Construction Industries of Rhode Island; and the Rhode Island Automobile Dealers Association.
In receivership since June 2008, Landmark is controlled by a court-appointed trustee, or special master, who located a buyer for the hospital after a protracted, trouble-plagued search in May. That’s when Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein deemed Steward the only qualified buyer for the hospital, a ruling that sent the deal to state regulators for final approval.
Under the Hospital Conversions Act, the state Department of Health and the Office of the Attorney General are required to review the terms of the deal and decide whether it will be approved.
UNAP publicly protested, however, when DOH issued a statements on Dec. 22 indicating that Steward had missed two deadlines since mid-November to submit the required documents needed to initiate the review. Calling the application incomplete, DOH said it was giving Steward one final extension of two weeks, until Jan. 11, to submit the information before terminating the process. UNAP accused DOH of “drawing a line in the sand” and threatening to kill the process prematurely, at the expense of hospital workers and the regional economy.
Neither GSI nor Steward returned telephone calls for comment on this story. The governor’s office provided no comment, either, though one was requested.
The toll-free telephone number for Chafee's office is 222-2080, and the office number for Lt. Gov. Roberts is 222-2371.