Published in the Star-Ledger, Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Plainfield hospital may close in June
CEO tells council there were no offers to buy it
BY ALEXI FRIEDMAN
Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center is technically still for sale, though realistically that opportunity has come and gone, said the CEO of Solaris Health System, which owns the 396-bed hospital in Plainfield.
John McGee's comments came during an appearance before the Plainfield City Council Monday night, when he explained the company's reasons for soliciting potential buyers back in November, then filing with the state in February to close Muhlenberg. McGee has said Solaris received no formal offers to purchase the hospital; its request for closure is still pending.
Afterward, he answered pointed questions from council members, among them:
# Why did Solaris choose to shutter Muhlenberg and not its sister hospital, JFK Medical Center in Edison? McGee's answer: Muhlenberg loses more money than JFK because it takes in more uninsured, undocumented patients and receives dwindling funds from Medicare and Medicaid.
# Why hadn't some services from JFK been transferred to Muhlenberg to make up for the losses? Answer: Patients from JFK have been hesitant to seek treatment at Muhlenberg, and many services require state approval, so simply transferring them to another hospital is impossible.
# Were uninsured patients -- who hospital officials say accounted for a substantial amount of Muhlenberg's $17 million in losses last year -- systematically moved from JFK Medical Center to Plainfield? Answer: No.
"I didn't get into this business to close hospitals," said McGee, whose council appearance drew more than 100 people to the municipal courthouse, many waving signs urging that the hospital remain open.
Several in attendance, like Cheryl Williams, had been treated at Muhlenberg. A lifelong Plainfield resident, Williams, 37, had hoped Solaris would meet "the community halfway." She left believing that the closure "was a done deal."
McGee told the council that the $2 million monthly losses Muhlenberg incurs cannot be sustained. Solaris has already paid off some of Muhlenberg's debt using money from JFK Medical Center. That hospital is barely making a profit, McGee said, avoiding a recent trend that has seen numerous community hospitals close throughout the state.
While a band of Plainfield residents has begun a grassroots effort to buy Muhlenberg with pledges of $20 a share -- organizers say more than $25,000 has been raised so far -- McGee said Solaris had to close the hospital or risk bouncing employee checks. "We can't drag it out," he said of the process to close.
Solaris would try to save jobs for 300 of Muhlenberg's 1,100 employees, McGee said, all of whom have received notices that the facility could begin to close as early as June. Though McGee would not provide a specific dollar amount, he estimated any price tag for Muhlenberg to be at least $40 million.
Plainfield, suffering its own financial troubles, cannot afford to fund the hospital, city officials said. Assemblyman Jerry Green (D-Union) has convened a health care task force to see what services at Muhlenberg can be saved.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Jim Colvin of the Plainfield United Church of Christ believes the effort to buy back the hospital isn't a pipe dream. Colvin, who attended Monday's meeting, called McGee's statement that a substantial number of patients from JFK Medical Center refuse to be treated in Plainfield patently false. McGee's admission that he sought treatment at Muhlenberg in 1990 for colon cancer, Colvin said, was an effort to curry favor with the council and audience.
Under Solaris' closure plan, Muhlenberg's acute care facility would be shuttered, though a satellite emergency room would remain open, as would the recently built nursing school, the council was told.
Answering a question from Councilman Cory Storch, McGee said Solaris has a three-year commitment to keep the emergency room open, after which it would be evaluated. The emergency unit serves about 35,000 people a year.
"So if it's getting frequent and heavy use, its future would be secure?" Storch asked. "Yes," McGee replied, "and certainly now the satellite emergency would be part of the JFK Medical Center."
Alexi Friedman may be reached at (908) 302-1505 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.