Friday, June 06, 2008

Hundreds Jam Second Muhlenberg Hearing

Many of the more than three dozen people who testified Thursday (June 5, 2008) on the proposed closing of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center said but for the proximity of the hospital and its excellent care, they would not be alive to talk about it.

At the second hearing conducted by members of the New Jersey State Health Planning Board, municipal officials and residents of several communities as well as physicians and activists pressed home the point that the hospital is too vital to thousands of Central Jersey residents to close. As in the previous meeting, board members took oral and written testimony to consider before making a recommendation to state Department of Health Commissioner Heather Howard on whether to grant a certificate of need to close the hospital.

Matching the crowd for the first hearing, nearly 1,200 protesters filled the Plainfield High School auditorium.

Speakers raised familiar themes from the first session, including concerns over the way Solaris Health Systems dealt with the hospital after acquiring it. The hospital has operated at a loss for many years, Solaris said in public announcements, but opponents to the closing claim Solaris depleted Muhlenberg by stripping it of lucrative health care services. The burden of uncompensated charity care then made Muhlenberg’s operation untenable, critics have said.

Among the witnesses to the need for Muhlenberg to stay open, former City Councilman Bob Ferraro said he lives a block and a half from the hospital and due to being nearby, he was able to recover from a paralyzing stroke, while Plainfield school board member Christian Estevez recounted his own and his son’s need for emergency asthma care. Another son has a life-threatening peanut allergy, he learned. Estevez said if he had to travel many minutes to get help, “I would fear for his life.”

Besides acute health care, residents are concerned about a projected shortfall in the number of births that can be handled if Muhlenberg closes. Solaris said only about 400 of 1,100 annual births could be handled at JFK Medical Center in Edison. Assemblyman Jerry Green said this week that Trinitas Hospital in Elizabeth could handle the extra several hundred births, but a Trinitas representative who spoke Thursday was booed by people who said the real solution was not to close Muhlenberg.

Among the most dramatic moments, Former Mayor Rick Taylor, now using a wheelchair due to complications of diabetes, urged supporters of the fight to save the hospital, saying, “Let’s fight together and not let anybody break our spirit.”

Residents involved in the People’s Organization for Progress led chants before and during the hearing, echoing numerous rallies and marches the group has held.

Officials speaking against the closing included South Plainfield Mayor Charles Butrico, Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr, South Plainfield Councilman Matthew Anesh and North Plainfield Council Vice President Mike Giordano. Peter Briggs, husband of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, made a statement on the mayor’s behalf, citing the economic effects if the hospital closes, including a ripple of foreclosures if its 1,100 employees find no work.

Former legislator David Schwartz came from Florida to protest the closing, saying the solution is to “right-size” acute care at the hospital to 112 beds. Asking whether Solaris did “everything that’s reasonable to do,” he answered his own question, “No.”

“The rush to misjudgment must be halted,” he said.

Schwartz is among a number of people who have come up with alternative proposals to closing the hospital. City resident Olive Lynch, who organized a campaign to buy Muhlenberg and operate it as a community hospital, said she will send a “20-page refutement” of reasons given by Solaris for the closing. Her group is in the process of putting together a consortium and a business plan, she said to loud applause.

Adrian Mapp, the Third Ward winner in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, said, “We need to get back to basics here. Charity care equals charity and care, not profit and profitability.”

He called for an end to “demonization of the poor” by demagogues and said state legislators must find the money to keep the hospital open.

“Charity care is an unfunded mandate,” he said.

Carrie Faraone, a maternity social worker at Muhlenberg, likened the closing to “racial profiling” due to its dire consequences for minority mothers and babies.

Annie McWilliams, winner of the citywide at-large Democratic line Tuesday, said Muhlenberg is an essential hospital that serves an underserved population. She called on the state health commissioner to “follow her own advice” on hospital closings and keep Muhlenberg open.

“That’s rational,” McWilliams said. “Anything else is irrational and dangerous.”

Other speakers said the extra time needed to get to other hospitals will strain local rescue squads and put victims of heart attacks, strokes and accidents at increased risk of death.

Lesli Price, who works with students at Plainfield High School, came to the microphone with members of a young men’s leadership group from the high school.

“They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” student Dontae Booth said. But he said, ”What doesn’t kill us in five minutes will kill us in half an hour.”

Members of the public will also be able to speak at the state Health Planning Board meeting where the certificate of need will be considered, and written testimony may be sent to the board up until June 12. The board will take all the testimony into account and make its recommendation to Howard, who will then make her decision on the proposed closing.

--Bernice Paglia


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