Thursday, April 24, 2008

Muhlenberg - Ledger - 'Save Muhlenberg' campaign launched

Published in the Star-Ledger, Sunday, April 20, 2008

Residents launch plan to purchase hospital

Star-Ledger Staff

They wanted more than the public protests -- both at home and in Trenton -- in order to save their beloved hospital.

To save the Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, supporters vowed to put money where their mouths are -- promising to raise millions of dollars and enlist the help of residents, financiers and at least one member of the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants.

With the Plainfield hospital as a backdrop, about 200 people gathered yesterday to lead a prayer vigil to protest the facility's planned closing -- the fifth demonstration in recent weeks. But this time, organizers launched the grassroots fundraising plan to purchase Muhlenberg from owner Solaris Health System, which announced in February the hospital would close later this year as a result of fiscal difficulties.

"We completely reject the idea that Muhlenberg is failing," said Plainfield resident Olive Lynch, a council candidate for the Third Ward who proposed the idea to purchase the hospital. "If that message is conveyed to people ... there is a lot of support for this, and I think people will be very surprised at the response."

Lynch said shares of the hospital will be sold for $20 each to raise enough money to meet Muhlenberg's asking price -- which Solaris spokesman Steven Weiss said was at least $70 million.

"I don't know of a successful private endeavor that resulted in the purchase of a hospital in New Jersey," Weiss said. "The costs of running a hospital ... that's the very reason why we are in this situation at Muhlenberg."

But in front of the 396-bed acute care facility yesterday, hospital supporters collected at least $20,000 in pledges to the cause.

Muhlenberg physician Brian Fertig said Giants center Shaun O'Hara, who lives in Hillsborough, has told him he would lend his name and clout to the Plainfield hospital's cause.

"I'm not saying there isn't a lot of waste in health care," said Fertig, who said he knows O'Hara through treating the player's father, David. "Clearly for fiscal efficiency, hospitals need to close. But this isn't one of those hospitals."

O'Hara could not be reached for comment yesterday.

During the two-hour rally, clergy leaders led several rounds of prayers -- both as a large group and in dozens of smaller circles, with supporters clasping hands and chanting prayers.

"We're here to save Muhlenberg ... to keep people safe, to help employees, help everyone who needs this," said North Plainfield resident Kathy Bottone, 47, her head bowed in prayer.

"So many people are depending on this hospital," said Plainfield resident Elizabeth David, 65.

Solaris officials have cited several economic reasons for the closure. Muhlenberg's emergency room treated about 35,000 patients last year and provided $15.4 million in charity care. However, officials said, the state reimbursed only $6.2 million of those costs.

Edison's JFK Medical Center, five miles away, would be the closest hospital for area residents if Muhlenberg -- which officials project would record $18 million in losses this year -- closes.

Weiss reiterated yesterday that Solaris officials received no formal offers to purchase Muhlenberg when they put the 131-year-old hospital up for sale last fall. Several protesters, however, said Solaris had received offers but they weren't what the company wanted.

A formal offer means "the disclosure of names of the principals, a clearly defined source of funding and operating experience," Weiss said. "And to that, there was no formal offer."

The state Department of Health and Senior Services has scheduled a hearing on May 6 for the public to comment on Solaris' application to close Muhlenberg. The hearing will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. in the auditorium at Plainfield High School, 950 Park Ave.

Organizers, including the People's Organization for Progress and the Concerned Urban Clergy of Plainfield and Vicinity, also said the groups will return to Trenton on May 8 to attend a hearing of the Assembly Health Committee.

Seung Min Kim may be reached at or (908) 429-9925.

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.