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Kaleida Health to close Mattina Center

Kaleida Health announced Monday it will close the Judge Joseph S. Mattina Community Health Center on Niagara Street on Nov. 1.

The hospital system earlier this year characterized the health center as a money-losing operation and, as a result, a target for possible closure.

There was talk of possibly leasing the building to the Northwest Buffalo Community Health Care Center, which plans to expand its primary medical services into the West Side neighborhood where the Mattina Center operates, but negotiations for a lease remain unresolved, officials said.

Mattina cares for about 14,000 patients, who will have to be notified of the closure.

The closure also affects 52 employees, some of whom have the ability through union seniority to bump into positions at Kaleida Health's Buffalo General Hospital. Several physicians and such physician-extenders as nurse practitioners may move to the Northwest Center. But the jobs of the clerical staff may be at risk, according to Local 1168, Communications Workers of America, which represents most of the workers.

Kaleida Health officials have been saying for months that cuts in reimbursement over the years and other financial problems, such as increased numbers of uninsured patients and a more expensive unionized staff, made the facility unaffordable.

"It's a tough decision, but we feel there are alternative medical services for patients," said Michael Hughes, the hospital system's spokesman.

The financial pressure led Kaleida Health in recent years to adopt a strategy of concentrating on "core services" in which it has a technological or market-leading position or services considered a critical community need and not duplicated elsewhere. The closure of Mattina follows the closure of other Kaleida Health programs over the last year, including the Wettlaufer Eye Clinic and the dental clinic at Buffalo General.

The change has been a source of anxiety for the veteran staff.

Care at the site of the Mattina Center dates back to 1908, when Columbus Hospital opened at the same location to serve Italian immigrants. In 1995, Buffalo General took over Columbus Hospital. It razed the deteriorating building and replaced it with the new center, even though officials projected it would lose money. The center opened in 2000 after Buffalo General had merged with four other hospitals to form Kaleida Health.

"It's an extremely sad day," said Michele Murray, an area vice president of Local 1168.

She said many employees of the Mattina Center, which sits in the heart of the city's Hispanic community, have devoted their careers to the place and knew several generations of patients.

"The Northwest Community Center has made a commitment, but the reality is it's not possible to be the same. They can't walk in with a new staff and do the same work," Murray said. "We had such a dedicated and educated staff."

Kaleida Health has been unable to come to terms on a lease with the Northwest Center, one of two federally qualified health centers in Buffalo, but is willing to continue negotiations, Hughes said.

Federally qualified health centers receive higher reimbursement from the government in exchange for providing fairly comprehensive basic medical services regardless of a patient's ability to pay.

The federal health reform law -- the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act -- included $11 billion in new funding over five years to expand federally qualified centers. The Northwest Health Center, on Lawn Avenue, had planned to expand regardless of Kaleida Health's action.

Murray said the Northwest Center's planned expansion was based on the need in Buffalo for more primary care services and not as a replacement for the Mattina Center.

She also criticized Kaleida Health for not pursuing possibilities for additional reimbursement at the Mattina Center, such as applying to become a so-called patient-center medical home, a concept to better coordinate care being tried in pilot projects around the country.

An official of the Northwest Center could not be reached to comment.

Another alternative for displaced patients is Urban Family Practice, a large private medical practice on Niagara Street.

Dr. Raul Vazquez, the founder and chief executive officer, sees both good and bad in the closing of Mattina.

On the potential plus side, he said, it's probably sensible long term that Kaleida Health is reorganizing in response to current and anticipated cutbacks in health care as the federal government and states look to control the cost of Medicare and Medicaid. His practice may also pick up some of the patients that once went to the Mattina center.

On the potential downside, Vazquez said the closure will disrupt care in the community, at least in the short term.

"I'm hopeful the Northwest Center wants to be a partner with us and not a competitor with a higher reimbursement. We've made investments and have skin in the game here," he said. "Change can be good, but we need to collaborate."