Published in the Courier News, Thursday, September 4, 2008
Plainfield, Solaris air differences at Muhlenberg meeting
By MARK SPIVEY
The State Department of Health and Senior Services is attempting to mediate a series of disputes between the city of Plainfield and Solaris, Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center's parent company, regarding the recent closure of the 131-year-old hospital.
Department of Health and Senior Services Commissioner Heather Howard met with Assemblyman Jerry Green, D-Union, and officials from Plainfield and Solaris in Trenton on Wednesday in a session that lasted nearly three hours — the talks revolving around disagreements regarding some of the 18 conditions outlined by Howard in a written decision released in late July approving Solaris' certificate of need to close the hospital.
"They got to discuss a variety of concerns centering around the (certificate of need)," said department spokeswoman Donna Leusner, "And she (Howard) is working with both parties to resolve the issues."
Those issues include a dispute over the adequacy of schedules for transportation to other medical facilities supplied by Solaris to city residents, plus the lack of a "watchdog" entity to ensure the conditions for closure continue to be met by the company, two topics that, according to Green, dominated the meeting. The assemblyman said he believed that without tangible amendments to the original approval of the certificate of need, the city would lean toward filing a formal appeal of Howard's decision, the deadline for which Green said is next week.
"I would say right now that I'm more inclined (to believe an appeal is pending), because there's so much mistrust there. I would say unless the commissioner makes these adjustments, there's a good opportunity that the city would appeal," Green said. "If she doesn't render a decision in a favorable way, there's going to be a problem, but I want to give her the benefit of the doubt first."
Leusner said her department was aware of the possibility for such an appeal. Yesterday's meeting was the second in three weeks to include the commissioner, Green, and Plainfield Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs in discussing the hospital, which city officials have said was vital to the community. Solaris has cited massive financial struggles stemming from low patient volumes, high rates of charity-care patients, and continuing state and federal reimbursement cuts for such patients as reasons for closing the hospital, the annual losses for which officials have said were approaching $20 million.
Solaris spokesman Steven Weiss characterized yesterday's meeting as being positive, expressing optimism that its eventual outcome could prove agreeable to both his company and the Plainfield community.
"The meeting itself was really a beneficial and healthy dialogue between the interested parties," Weiss said. "They're (the Department of Health) going to look at what can be done to look at some of the conditions to see if they can simplify some of them to make them more beneficial to the community."
Weiss said yesterday's meeting also touched on the hot-button issue of the possible sale of the hospital or parts of the hospital grounds. Green and others have accused Solaris of being uncooperative with prospective buyers, but Weiss said his company explained during the meeting that such transactions are complicated.
"We were clarifying the parameters that our investment bankers use for the sale," Weiss said. "There are a lot of specifics when it comes from turning a nonprofit (facility) into a for-profit."
Weiss added that Solaris remains willing to listen to any offers for parts of the 17-acre campus. Green has said he knows of no fewer than four interested parties.
"We remain open to being approached," Weiss said.
Yesterday's meeting originally set up as a showdown between Green and Solaris over the possible approval by the state of nearly $170 million in bonds for the financially distressed health-care company, funds that the assemblyman last week said he hoped to get the state to defer pending the city's grievances being addressed.
Green softened his stance slightly yesterday, saying Solaris officials spent part of the meeting emphasizing the fact that the denial of the bonds in question could spell financial disaster. The matter was originally due to come before the New Jersey Health Care Facilities Financing Authority on Aug. 28, but was postponed, although the case now appears on the authority's Web site under a list of pending business with a decision date yet to be set.
"They were pleading their case, and they made it very clear that without financing in place, all the things we're talking about, including employees, (could be in jeopardy)," Green said. "Without that revenue needed for Solaris to get in good financial shape, then it could be a crisis for them. That's why it's important it should be give-and-take on both sides — they have financial concerns, we have health concerns."
Mark Spivey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 908-707-3144.
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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.