PROVIDENCE — When Dan Couture got a nagging pain in his shoulder last month, the avid health buff from North Smithfield passed if off as the byproduct of too much exercise.
On Christmas Day, after four days of suffering, the 63-year-old real estate appraiser couldn’t stand it anymore. The pain had become so unbearable that he had has wife, June, drive him to Landmark Medical Center. There, doctors strapped him to a monitoring device and calmly informed Couture he was in the throes of a full-blown heart attack.
It had taken Couture a mere 10 minutes to get to the hospital from his house, and within an hour his cardiologist, Dr. Walid Saver, had inserted a stent in his heart to restore the flow of blood to the choked-off, main artery.
“I was going to die on Christmas Day,” Couture said, choking back tears. “If Landmark Medical Center were closed, I’m not sure I would have made it to Providence in time, I was in such severe condition.”
As his wife looked on, Couture spoke to reporters Tuesday on the doorstep of the Cannon Building where, inside, the very fate of the struggling Woonsocket hospital hangs in the balance. It’s headquarters to the state Department of Health, one of two agencies empowered to decide whether Boston-based Steward Health Care System may purchase Landmark, a 130-year-old fixture of community healthcare in Woonsocket that has fallen on hard times.
Couture was Exhibit A in what was billed as a rally in support of the merger, featuring a who’s who of business, political and labor leaders from northern Rhode Island, including U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), who organized the affair. The list of attendees included Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, Sen. Marc Cote (D-Dist. 24, Woonsocket, North Smithfield), City Councilmen Christopher Beauchamp and Robert Moreau, John Gregory, president of the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, and Christopher Callaci, general counsel to the United Nurses and Allied Professionals — Landmark’s largest employees’ union.
The failure of the hospital would cripple the region’s capacity to deliver critical health care service, kill off hundreds of jobs in health care and rob Woonsocket of a powerful engine of its already-hobbled economy, the officials asserted.
“Landmark Medical Center is a treasured community asset and particularly important to the residents of Woonsocket,” Cicilline said. “It’s important that we protect the jobs that Landmark Medical Center provides and do everything we can to ensure that Landmark, a facility that provides critical health care services to the people of Rhode Island, stays open.”
The rally comes at a critical juncture for the proposed merger of Landmark and Steward. Around the same time Couture was admitted to Landmark, Health Director David Fine said the parties, after missing two deadlines to submit a complete application, would be given one last chance to do so.
On Jan. 11, health officials confirmed that Steward and Landmark had successfully supplied the requested paperwork on time. But they are still evaluating whether the materials constitute a complete application under the Hospital Conversions Act, the complex state law that gives DOH and the Attorney General’s Office the power to approve the merger.
Health Department spokesman Robert Marshall said Tuesday he did not know how much longer it would take to make the determination, but he was optimistic that the regulators could reach a decision without setting any more new deadlines.
“I don’t want to understate how important it is for this process to move swiftly and efficiently,” Fontaine said on the steps of the Cannon Building. “It is critical that we maintain these jobs in the city as we work toward our own economic revitalization.”
Callaci said Landmark and its sister facility in North Smithfield, the Rehabilitation Hospital of Rhode Island, employ a combined 1,200 workers. “Jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Callaci — that’s what’s at stake in the merger. And if those jobs disappear, the spinoff economic activity driven by the hospital will dry up, too.
“It’s not often you see labor and business standing at the same podium to talk about the issue of jobs,” said Gregory, the chamber president. “We’re together on this one.”
Gregory said it’s hard to quantify how disastrous the failure of the hospital could be for the city, but ultimately the loss of health care and employment opportunities would translate into a lower quality of life for residents. Gregory said it’s not just the health care workers who would be in jeopardy, “It’s all the other jobs right down to the local florist that’s delivering flowers to the hospital every day.”
Landmark filed for receivership in June 2008 and sought a merger under the supervision of Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein and his court-appointed special master, Pawtucket lawyer Jonathan Savage. In May, the judged deemed Steward, owner of 10 for-profit hospitals in Massachusetts, to be the only qualified bidder as several other suitors, including two from Tennessee, were cast aside.
The successful sale of the hospital has been widely portrayed as Landmark’s last hope for survival in an increasingly competitive health care environment.
For Couture, it’s a personal issue.
“I owe my life to the doctors at Landmark,” he says. “That was my Christmas present.”