Saturday, February 23, 2008

Muhlenberg - Ledger - Hospital to close

Published in the Star Ledger, Saturday, February 23, 2008

Flood of red ink spells the end of Muhlenberg Medical Center

Star-Ledger Staff

Faced with mounting deficits caused mainly by insufficient state aid to cover all its uninsured patients, officials at Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center in Plainfield said yesterday they plan to close the 130-year-old facility later this year.

The Union County hospital plans to file formal papers with the state Department of Health and Senior Services on March 1 seek ing the closure. If approved, programs and services will be phased out during a "wind down" period before Muhlenberg finally stops admitting patients.

"Do I expect people to be upset? Yes. I am upset," said John P. McGee, president and CEO of Solaris Health System, which owns the hospital.

More than half of New Jersey's 78 community care hospitals are operating in the red, a result of a convergence of economic forces including declining reimbursement from major insurers like Medicare and increased operating costs. In the last six months, three hospitals -- Barnert in Paterson, Pascack Valley in Westwood and Union Hospital in Union Twp. -- have closed.

Others, including Saint James and Columbus in Newark and Greenville in Jersey City, are scheduled to close soon.

The decision to close the 396-bed Plainfield hospital was a "last resort" after an attempt to find a buyer failed, McGee said. Muhlenberg, which also has 1,100 employees and 350 affiliated physicians, was put up for sale last November. Officials say they reached out to more than 60 potential buy ers.

McGee said one reason for the lack of interest is economics: Muh lenberg will likely show a loss of $18 million for 2007.

The hospital -- whose emer gency room treats 35,000 patients a year -- doled out some $15.4 million in uncompensated care last year, but received only $6.2 million from the state in charity care funding, spokesman Steven Weiss said.

McGee said the hospital absorbs whatever the state does not provide in charity care funding.

Muhlenberg has also been treating a growing number of uninsured patients as well as undocumented patients, most of whom are not insured and do not qualify for charity care, he said.

"The cost of providing this care is more of a burden than anything else," he said. "But don't think that closing Muhlenberg solves this underlying public policy issue. It doesn't."

The hospital's financial problems have also been affected by declining numbers of patients and competition from free-standing outpatient surgery centers in Central Jersey, officials said.

Once it closes, the hospital plans to maintain, at least temporarily, a satellite emergency room with limited services. Plans also call for the nursing school to re main open, although some change in accreditation will be required.

A home care service the hospital jointly operates with its sister facility, JFK Medical Center in Edison, will continue to function. Muhlenberg merged with JFK in 1997 to form the Solaris Health System.

JFK, with 380 beds, is located about five miles away, in Middlesex County, and will be the closest acute-care hospital to Plainfield.

Local elected officials concerned about issues like transportation are hoping to create a task force to ensure Plainfield residents get the essential medical services they need after the closing.

Leading the effort is Assemblyman Jerry Green (D-Union), who wants officials from Overlook Hospital in Summit, Somerset Medical Center and Saint Peter's University Hospital in New Brunswick to either offer services in Plainfield or take in patients from Muhlenberg.

"We're hoping we can sit down in Central Jersey and come up with a plan that will be efficient for everyone," Green said.

Katrina Pagan, of North Plainfield, who's been coming to Muh lenberg for her routine pregnancy checkups since September, spends about $7 for a taxi to the facility. She estimated it will cost her about $25 to get to JFK.

"It's going to make it difficult," said Pagan, the mother of a 21-month-old son who feels patients should have been notified sooner.

McGee said only about one- third of the hospital's employees may be retained initially and conceded that the other two-thirds are "at risk." Green is hoping the task force can play a role in finding jobs for some of them.

Online story here. Archived here.

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About Me

Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.