Published in the Courier News, Monday, March 17, 2008
Officials prep for Muhlenberg closing
By CLEM FIORENTINO
The scars are still raw. And perhaps it's still too early to talk about healing.
But Assemblyman Jerry Green, D-Union, while he says he understands the anger and frustration spawned by the announcement that Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center in Plainfield will close its acute-care facility by the end of the summer, thinks it's time to accept reality.
"Right now, people are angry," Green said. "But anger and frustration doesn't help us to move forward. We have to get the word out. We are working on Plan B."
Plan A was Green's effort to work with Solaris Health System officials in an attempt to keep Muhlenberg open. When the facility could not be sold, Solaris announced the shutdown and filed a certificate of need for closure with the state Department of Health and Senior Services.
The questions loom. What happens next? How will the people of Plainfield and its neighboring towns receive medical treatment? Will there be enough beds at surrounding hospitals? What effect will the loss of 1,000 jobs have on the city itself? What will happen to the Muhlenberg campus and the more than 300 affiliated physicians?
"Right now, there is no solid program in place," Green said. "But we are working on it."
By "we," Green means the task force he is putting together in the wake of the announcement. The task force includes representatives from five surrounding hospitals -- those who will be called on to absorb the patient population now being served by Muhlenberg.
"Those hospitals are ready to accept patients," Green said. "Somebody is making sure that they have a place to go."
Those places include Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, Overlook Hospital in Summit, JFK Medical Center in Edison and Robert Wood Johnson and Saint Peter's University hospitals in New Brunswick.
Green realizes that all of these hospitals are feeling the pinch, too, as they anticipate substantial cutbacks in charity-care assistance in Gov. Jon S. Corzine's budget.
"The state and the federal government are going to have to realize that these hospitals are working in the red," Green said. "The dollars are not going to be there."
Thus far, Green's task force has addressed four basic issues.
First, Green said, the five hospitals have agreed to look to Muhlenberg employees before hiring others from the outside. This might involve training provided by the state or Union County.
Second, he wants to make sure there are enough vacant beds to accommodate patients at the five surrounding hospitals.
Third is the transportation of patients. This will fall to organizations such as the rescue squads, the Red Cross, volunteers and the hospitals themselves. This must be organized and run professionally, Green said, involving some form of coordination to ensure that every patient gets the best care possible. That includes some system for making sure that all charity-care patients aren't taken to the same facility.
Fourth on Green's agenda is the hope that the state and federal government will recognize an industry in crisis and assist Muhlenberg in making proper use of its campus.
While Solaris has announced that only the emergency room and the nursing school will remain at the Muhlenberg site, Green hopes to preserve as many services as possible, which might include X-ray and laboratory facilities.
"We need to be in a position to entertain entities that benefit the campus," Green said. "We can have entities at the campus that make a profit."
Green hopes to reassure the public with community meetings in the near future.
"We want to make sure that no one gets hurt, no one loses a job and that medical care is guaranteed," Green said.
Those sentiments were echoed by Rudine Smith, CEO of Neighborhood Health Services, which operates the Plainfield Health Center on Myrtle Avenue and two satellite facilities in the city.
"We are working with the task force to make sure we continue to have health care," Smith said.
Last year, 25,970 patients were treated during more than 91,000 visits to the center, one of 19 federally qualified facilities in the state.
Smith says there's no way to predict the future and she will deal with problems as they present themselves.
"We do anticipate an influx of patients," she said. "We are the safety net in the community."
Further down the road, Green said, it's up to the federal government to help people who can't afford insurance.
"Washington needs to help people with health care."
For the moment, however, there are many obstacles and reasons for concern.
"It's going to be horrible," said Jennie Purnell, business manager for the Plainfield Rescue Squad. "We will be affected tremendously. We only have one ambulance on the road, and we have 7,000 calls a year. With increased time and distance (to surrounding hospitals), each call will take at least an hour."
Purnell, who has been asked to serve on Green's task force, said that rescue-squad members will have to make decisions as to where to take people. If the crew knows the patient will likely have to be admitted to an acute-care facility, they will have to bypass whatever emergency facilities are left at Muhlenberg.
"Patients will be waiting," Purnell said. "We don't qualify for charity care. It's going to be a mess."
Neighboring towns offer mutual aid, but they expect to be stressed as well.
"It's the whole health-care system," said Purnell, who also works in the Muhlenberg emergency room. "The money needs to be there. The government has to come up with a plan. It's going to be a difficult transition. It's going to put more people in danger."
Another group looking to the future is the Tri-County Red Cross, which provides 10,000 trips per year -- largely for scheduled medical treatments.
"More people in the community are going to need services," CEO Nathan Rudy said. "We will have to ramp up our programs."
Rudy said that right now everyone -- agencies, churches, etc. -- is thinking about the options. He promises that people will be taken care of.
"We will take people to their appointment, wherever it is," Rudy said. "We view this as a necessary service. That's what we do. We're the Red Cross."
For the work force, there appears to be no consolation.
Patty Greaux of Howell has been a nurse at Muhlenberg for two years.
"Most people are looking for work now," she said. "The reality is there is no guarantee."
Solaris officials have said they will try to transfer one-third of the work force to the system's other locations, but Greaux thinks any transfer would be minimal at best -- especially for nurses.
Greaux said a recent job fair revealed that there are fewer than 60 positions for nurses available at JFK Medical Center in Edison, another Solaris location. Muhlenberg, at the moment, employs more than 300 nurses.
Greaux said that the idea that there is a nursing shortage is a misconception.
"Generally, in the United States, there is great call for nurses," she said. "But in our area, at least five major hospitals have closed in the past 18 months. The market is saturated."
She acknowledges that there might more opportunities for nurses other than bedside nursing in a hospital setting. But she worries about people in ancillary positions who might not have a requisite skill set. She said she knows of four or five couples who work at Muhlenberg who will lose both incomes -- their entire livelihood.
"Plus, there are people who can hardly get to Muhlenberg," she said. "Now, they have to go to JFK."
Greaux, who works in the cardiac-care unit at Muhlenberg, said she saw a case last week where a woman was found unconscious in her home, rushed to the hospital and had to have two stents inserted in her arteries.
"If Muhlenberg wasn't there, she would have died," Greaux said. "It's a shame for the community."
Uncertainty is also the keyword for the doctors on staff at Muhlenberg.
"What can we do?' said Dr. Harold Arlen, a South Plainfield ear, nose and throat specialist who has been on the staff at Muhlenberg for 42 years. "We don't have any power. We can't afford to buy it."
He, too, has accepted reality. But, still there is sadness.
"Muhlenberg has always rendered excellent care," Arlen said. "The nursing service on the floor, in the operating room and in every department is very excellent. I'll be sorry to lose that. It's a big loss for most of the surgeons."
Surgeons, meanwhile, will have to go elsewhere. In addition to JFK Medical Center, where many are still affiliated under the Solaris umbrella, they can perform surgeries at ambulatory care centers, which have prospered throughout Central Jersey.
Those locations closest to Muhlenberg include Mediplex in Edison (near JFK), SurgiCare in Watchung and the Middlesex Surgery Center in Edison.
Am I the only one who sees the insanity of allowing a governor who is going to be responsible for people dying to continue to hold our fates and the fate of the people of our State in his incapable hands? Every New Jersey resident should be contacting the Governor's Office and Demanding his immediate resignation.
Maybe Someonne can answer this question; How many deaths is it going to take unitl someone in power realizes that Muhlenberg closing is a disaster. Oh wait, sorry it is about the bottom line, not the obituarie pages.
Governor Corzine and entire NJ Government wake up and do the right thing. NOW !!!! PLEASE !!!
Posted: Mon Mar 17, 2008 7:36 am
SkyBlue, to your point, We can be sure that the Solaris/ JFK board has that already lined up. Mad
Posted: Mon Mar 17, 2008 7:14 am
Dr Arlen didnt say everything. The surgeons and most all of the doctors hate to go to JFK. They say everything is a problem, everything takes longer and everyone argues. It never was or will be the caring/ friendly place that Muhlenberg is.
In addition to absorbing 700 lesser skilled workers into the Plainfield area work force, Assemblyman Green and the mayor should be planning on funding a full time PAID EMS for the city, and likely surroundiung towns such as North and South Plainfield. The volunteer system will simply not be able to cope and will fail. And who will provide the TWO Paramedic units that Muhlenberg now must provide the area? JFK? The Plainfield area wont be their problem anymore!
And as mentioned, there will be the deaths.
Muhlenberg closing will be so sad on so many levels.
Posted: Mon Mar 17, 2008 7:09 am
I'll bet Assemblyman Green knows a developer who could convert the place into condominiums.
Posted: Mon Mar 17, 2008 6:52 am
I am so sad to see this hospital close. I got my first job as a nurse aide there in 1964. I have met life long friends there. I was inspired to go to nursing school because of this hospital. I had the opportunity to work there after nursing school and was blessed to be able to be at my surragate mothers bedside as she passed away there. I still can recall the old East 1 side of the building and can close my eyes and still remember the thrill of learning about patient care from the great staff that was there. I remember a close family friend that was in ICU, given last rites and the comfort of the chapel on the first floor. I now live in Fl but the legacy of this great hospital lives on.
Posted: Mon Mar 17, 2008 6:36 am
Online story here. Archived here.
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- 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.