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A SAD TALE OF TWO HOSPITALS

Niagara County hospital officials may have stopped the pain, but they haven't stopped the bleeding.

The Health System of Niagara's announcement that both Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center and St. Mary's Hospital of Lewiston are to remain open with full services will be welcomed by residents of both communities, but it does nothing to solve the financial problems those facilities face.

By abandoning even the revised plan that followed a public outcry over merger announcements, the agency's board is postponing the inevitable. By ordering President Angelo Carbone to find ways to "achieve financial stability," it abdicates its own responsibility.

With the hospitals losing money, maintaining such duplicate services as emergency rooms and maternity wards will shift cost-cutting efforts to payrolls. Jobs are now on the line, and the Health System must make the process as open and compassionate as possible for the sake of health-care workers and the community alike.

The system now has a debt of more than $40 million, and losses so far this year are well over $8 million. The hospitals have a combined 467 beds, with only 132 in use on an average day. Both hospitals will stay, but officials are launching a department-by-department evaluation that may lead to restructuring, reductions or eliminations.

This is not the hospitals' fault, nor is it the fault of the dedicated health-care and administrative staffs that run them. Hospitals everywhere, not just in Niagara Falls, have been caught in the financial whirlpools of a changing health-care world. Some are being sucked under.

It's tempting to draw parallels between the hospitals near the Falls, and the current controversies over the proposed Catholic Health System restructuring of Mercy and Our Lady of Victory hospitals. Both pairs of hospitals have excess beds and duplicative services, both face a financial crunch and both serve approximately the same area with some of the same medical staff.

But there are differences, too. While OLV and Mercy are only a mile and a half apart and serve similar areas, the Niagara facilities are separated by seven miles and serve separate city and suburban clientele.

Health System of Niagara, which runs the two hospitals, no longer has the $7 million to $11.5 million it would take to consolidate, a key and disturbing factor in its decision. In South Buffalo, Catholic Health System officials still have hopes of pulling out a solution that will both save money and ease community concerns.

Neither agency faces an easy task. Their workers still face an uncertain future. When hospitals ail, communities suffer.

While one board continues to wrestle with the tough questions, though, the Niagara directors are simply washing their hands of the matter. That may be good surgical procedure in the medical arena, but not when the needed surgery is financial and the responsibility involves fundamental policy decisions.

Niagara's hospitals shouldn't simply delay while the financial losses continue. Their directors have acknowledged the bleeding, but say they can't afford the bandage. Tough decisions nevertheless have to be made -- and they have to be made quickly before the flow of red ink becomes a river.

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