Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Protesters Keep Up Heat on Muhlenberg Closing

Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center officially closed Aug. 13 despite months of protest, but on Monday opponents of the closing pressed the City Council to appeal and demanded details of the final arrangements.

The council passed resolutions forming a committee to deal with the hospital’s parent, Solaris Health Systems, and to demand “specific assurances” from state Health Commissioner Heather Howard on conditions she imposed as part of the closing. Outstanding issues include transportation to JFK Medical Center in Edison, access to medical records, a probe of Solaris finances and the value of the Muhlenberg property and the disposition of lifetime endowments to Muhlenberg.

Resident Rasheed Abdul-Haqq, who has long protested the presence of Albert Bierstadt’s “Landing of Columbus at San Salvador” in the municipal courtroom where the council meets, expressed doubt that Howard would respond fairly on the issues.

“It’s a lot like asking Cristobal Colombo to treat the natives in the New World as equals,” he said.

The painting depicts indigenous people bowing down to the Europeans.

Abdul-Haqq said the city's only hope to restore the acute care facility is an appeal of Howard's decision to allow the closing.

The two resolutions were part of a consent agenda to be passed in a single vote, but Dr. Harold Yood asked for a separate vote on each, saying they were "too serious a matter to be considered routine."

The closing of the 131-year-old institution affects not only the city, but about a dozen surrounding towns. Residents who have met every Monday night for months to protest the closing have faulted the governing body for not taking a strong enough stand against it.

"You probably have more power than you think you have," resident Margaret Minatee told the council.

Minatee specifically objected to a plan to charge patients $1 per page for their medical records from Muhlenberg, but added, "We need a hospital in this place."

The Rev. James Colvin said the hospital's license does not expire until December 2008 and questioned Howard's conditions on the closing, saying they may look good, ".... but who is going to be the ombudsman, who is going to be the watchdog?"

Protesters and officials have attempted to locate a buyer for the hospital, but resident Dottie Gutenkauf said Solaris has never yet disclosed a price for the Muhlenberg property. She said an appraisal is needed.

Gutenkauf also protested the cost of obtaining records, calling the proposed charges "obscene."

"These records ought to be free," she said.

Activist Carmen Salavarietta alleged that taxi drivers taking patients to JFK Medical Center and othe hospitals since the closing were illegally hiking their rates to take advantage of the situation.

Council members questioned the tax-exempt status of the Muhlenberg property since the closing, but Gutenkauf tangled with Councilman Rashid Burney after he said the new committee had asked for all financial records on the the closing "agreement."

"What agreement?" Gutenkauf called from the audience.

"The shutdown," Burney said, "whatever you want to call it."

Objecting to Burney's perceived light tone, Gutenkauf shouted angrily, "You don't joke about ropes in the house of someone who's been hanged!"

Besides speaking before the council vote on the committee and assurances sought from Howard, members of the public spoke again in the public comment portion at the end of the meeting.

Resident Gayle Jones said Solaris promised a plan of action for emergency response after the closing, but said she never received it. Jones said a shuttle bus is supposed to leave Muhlenberg for JFK Medical Center at 10 minutes before the hour and return at 20 minutes past the hour, but the last trip to JFK at 7:50 p.m. had no return service to Plainfield. She said she thought Howard had said there would be house-to-house transportation service for patients.

The protest group has held numerous marches and rallies since word of the closing became known earlier this year and continues to meet at 6:30 p.m. every Monday at Du Cret School of the Arts on Central Avenue.

--Bernice Paglia


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