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Local leaders demand state action as Eastern Niagara Hospital defends Newfane cutbacks

LOCKPORT – Elected officials gathered in a park across from Eastern Niagara Hospital Tuesday to call on Albany to look into the planned end of inpatient services at the hospital’s Newfane location.

Meanwhile, Clare A. Haar, chief executive officer of the hospital, said she thought that if the hospital had affiliated with any larger group, as her critics have recommended, that chain would have come to the same conclusion she and the Easter Niagara board of directors did regarding the Newfane facility.

Somerset Supervisor Daniel M. Engert, who emceed the press conference in Veterans Park, said the hospital’s alleged lack of transparency makes it impossible to prove that claim.

He and the other leaders present repeated the same script over and over, calling on Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to use whatever power he has in this field “to ensure appropriate accountability and transparency to the benefits of the citizens in this affected service area.”

Form letters for citizens to sign are to be posted on the websites of local towns.

The speakers also urged the state Health Department to conduct a full review of the Newfane cutback plan, including a public hearing, instead of a what Engert called “a cursory review.”

An official of the state Health Department, speaking on a not-for-attribution basis, said the department already is reviewing the plan.

Newfane will offer an emergency room, which Engert claimed would be more like an urgent care center he predicted would be closed after a short time. Otherwise, the site will provide outpatient services such as X-rays, blood draws, dialysis, and physical and occupational therapy.

The cutbacks included the layoff of the equivalent of 60 full-time workers; most of the hospital’s employees are part-time or per diem.

Engert said he and others would like to know whether the hospital board of directors might have violated its own by-laws in the process leading up to the decision to end inpatient care at Newfane as of mid-October. However, he said no one can tell, because the hospital has declined to release the by-laws.

The Somerset supervisor said, “If there’s been a violation of a not-for-profit’s by-laws, the attorney general has the standing to conduct a review of that, and if there have been violations, we understand he has authority to take action against the board to require them to come into compliance with their own by-laws.”

Engert said other not-for-profit hospitals post board meeting minutes on their websites, but Eastern Niagara doesn’t even place the names of the board members online.

Haar said complaints like that avoid what she said is the main issue, which is whether the hospital can afford two sites with inpatient care.

“This is a clear business decision. I know the message is not a happy one,” Haar said. “This decision has to proceed. … We simply have too much impatient capacity for this population.”

The former Newfane Inter-Community Memorial Hospital is licensed for 71 beds. It recently has been offering 63, and Tuesday, only 13 were occupied. The former Lockport Memorial Hospital is licensed for 134 beds; Haar said she didn’t know Tuesday’s census figure.

Town of Wilson Supervisor Joseph A. Jastrzemski said after the news conference that the elected leaders still want a town supervisor placed on the hospital board. Haar noted that County Legislator David E. Godfrey of Wilson already serves on the board, but Jastrzemski insisted on a supervisor being added.

Legislator John Syracuse of Newfane called for the hospital to explore “alignment” with a larger hospital group, such as Kaleida or the Catholic Health System, for the purposes of self-preservation.

Haar said, “The hospital has not made a decision on what direction it will take in regard to affiliation. We will undertake some type of relationship with a larger organization.”

But she said such a deal is “not a cure.” Haar said, “A health system wouldn’t say, ‘We’ll subsidize a low-volume situation.’ I don’t believe any administration would look at this situation and come to a different conclusion.”

Engert called her statement “hypothetical” because it is not based on the result of “real, true and active negotiations with those two systems.”

Patient care advocate Mary Brennan-Taylor of Lockport and former Eastern Niagara nurse Melissa Eaton referred to poor ratings the hospital has received, including a score of 31 out of 100 from Consumer Reports in March and an F grade from Leapfrog, another consumer rating service.

“ENH can and must do better,” Brennan-Taylor said, joining with the other speakers in “a vote of no confidence” in the hospital leadership and its actions.

Haar claimed that Leapfrog downgrades hospitals that, like Eastern Niagara, don’t participate in its surveys. As for Consumer Reports, she said, “The rating is not one we would rely on or find credible.” She said Consumer Reports’ methodology was criticized by the New York Hospital Association. Consumer Reports released a statement saying its survey was based on hospitals’ own reporting to the federal government, as well as “patient-reported outcomes.”

Others officials appearing at the news conference included Assemblywoman Jane Crowin, R-Clarence; Lockport Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey; Supervisors Timothy R. Horanburg of Newfane and Wright H. Ellis of Cambria; Councilman Mark C. Crocker of the Town of Lockport; City of Lockport Alderman Kenneth M. Genewick; and County Legislature Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove of Lockport.