The Star-Ledger

Community Calls For Monitor If Christie Administration Approves Sale Of Passaic Hospital

The Star-Ledger — Tuesday, January 14, 2014

By Susan K. Livio / The Star-Ledger

TRENTON — On the eve of public hearings on the proposed sale of struggling Saint Mary's Hospital in Passaic to a for-profit company in California, community leaders urged the Christie administration today to impose a fiscal monitor to ensure staffing levels are safe and the facility's mission of treating the poor remains intact.

Representatives from New Jersey Citizen Action, the Peruvian American Coalition in Passaic and NJ Appleseed Public Interest Law Center said they 'd like the Attorney General's Office and Health Department to reject Prime Healthcare Services, Inc.'s $25 million bid to buy the hospital. But if the sale is approved, the state must require vital yet potentially money-losing services are preserved, like mental health care and outpatient treatment of diabetes and hypertension.

"It's not enough to have an emergency room that shifts patients to other facilities," Nelly Celi of the Peruvian American Coalition in Passaic said during a conference call with reporters. "Saint Mary's must be a full-service community hospital that meets the needs of the community. We are concerned a for profit hospital will neglect the mission."

Prime has announced plans to acquire Saint Mary's, Saint Michael's Medical Center in Newark and Saint Clare's hospitals in Morris County, all of which are small, community hospitals that have been looking for partners to protect them from budget cuts contained in the federal Affordable Care Act. Four of five hospitals in Hudson County have been acquired by for-profit entities since 2008.

Stephanie Allen, a respiratory therapist at Centinela Hospital Medical Center that Prime purchased in 2007, said management cut staff, hired low-paid rookies to handle complicated emergency room and intensive care unit patients, and dropped some insurance carriers.

"As a result, many local patients say they've had to seek treatment elsewhere," Allen said.

Prime announced its intentions a year ago to acquire Saint Mary's. The state Health Department, however, has spent months asking Prime representatives a litany of questions, including questions about a succession plan should Prem Reddy, Prime's CEO, no longer be able to serve. The company he runs has been the subject of a long-running U.S. Department of Justice investigation into billing irregularities, though there have been no accusations of wrongdoing.

Luis Leon, Prime's president of Operations, issued a statement that said the company was "committed to St. Mary's Hospital, its employees and the greater Passaic community."

"We welcome the State of New Jersey's thorough review process and look forward to the public hearings, which will allow community members to make their voices heard. We remain confident that this fair and open process will ultimately lead to St. Mary's joining the Prime Healthcare family," Leon's statement said.

The state must install a financial monitor for three years so the hospital does not place profits ahead of patient care, India Hayes Larrier of Citizen Action said.

According to an analysis done by National Nurses United, the largest nurses union in the country, two of the most expensive hospitals in New Jersey — Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center in Secaucus and Bayonne Medical Center — are run by for-profit companies, and New Jersey also has the most expensive hospitals nationally, Renee Steinhagen, executive director of NJ Appleseed Public Interest Law Center.

"If you look at the list, all the NJ for-profits are in the top 10," Steinhagen said.

The hearings on the sale, required by law before a hospital is sold, are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday at 6 p.m. at Passaic High School, according to Citizen Action.

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