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Hospital administrators make case for survival at hearing

In the first step of what is likely to be a rough and wrenching process, administrators of hospitals from all over Western New York urged an advisory panel Monday not to recommend them for closure.

In a hearing at Niagara County Community College that lasted more than two hours, the leaders of hospitals from Newfane to Westfield told the regional advisory committee to the state's Commission on Health Care Facilities in the 21st Century why they should stay open.

Gov. George E. Pataki appointed the commission last June and gave it until this Dec. 1 to present a list of hospitals and nursing homes that should be shut down because of perceived excess numbers of available beds in some parts of the state.

Once the commission reports, Pataki will have until Dec. 5 to block the list if he wants. Then the State Legislature will have until Dec. 31 to stop the plan, but it isn't allowed to make changes in the hit list. If the Legislature does nothing, the plan goes into effect in 2007.

Stuart Williams, president of tiny Westfield Memorial Hospital, took a thinly veiled shot at the plan.

"Redoing the State of New York's health-care system in one year's time with a volunteer commission that will report to a governor who is leaving office in 30 days after that, and a Legislature that will be in transition, is a task I worry about," Williams told the advisory committee. "I don't know that it can be done effectively and legitimately with the resources you've been given."

"Of course there are concerns, but we've been given a specific charge and we'll do our best to meet it," Dr. David L. Dunn, vice president for health services at the University at Buffalo and the advisory panel's chairman, said after the hearing.

Other members are Joseph D. McDonald, president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health System; William D. McGuire, former CEO of Kaleida Health; and Paul J. Candino, president and CEO of Prism Health Networks, West Seneca.

Michael Young, president of Erie County Medical Center, warned the committee that some hospitals may be cooking the books when it comes to occupancy rates.

Citing a book called "How to Lie With Statistics," Young charged that some hospitals are twisting data to make their occupancy look higher. He said hospitals that use "objective and honest data . . . have nothing to fear."

"There are 400- to 500-bed hospitals in Western New York that are operating at 20 percent to 40 percent occupancy," Young said.

Several of the speakers represented small-town hospitals, such as Westfield Memorial, with only 35 beds.

"For that community, it is an essential part of health care and the economic base," Williams said.

"Community hospitals are a safety net and frequently the only place available for people to receive care irrespective of their ability to pay," said James E. Sinner, president and CEO of 100-bed Medina Memorial Hospital, the only hospital in Orleans County.

Clare A. Haar, president of the Eastern Niagara Health System, which includes Lockport Memorial and Newfane Inter-Community Memorial hospitals, said her group, which includes a nursing home and a home care agency, has already achieved the efficiencies the commission says it wants to see.

She disclosed that Lockport Memorial, after years of losses, broke into the black in 2005, while Inter-Community remained profitable.

Angelo G. Calbone, president of Mount St. Mary's Hospital, said the Catholic facility in Lewiston hasn't had more than four of its 175 beds open any day this month. He said the hospital serves inner-city Niagara Falls with a primary care site that loses $400,000 a year.

Joseph A. Ruffolo, president and chief executive officer of Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, pointed to his facility's recent upgrades, including the new Heart Center of Niagara, as reasons that his hospital "should be a low priority for right-sizing."

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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