Plan To Sell St. Mary's Hospital In Passaic To For-Profit Chain Gets Mixed Reviews At Hearing

The Record ( — Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Record

PASSAIC — The survival of the city's last remaining hospital must be assured, a succession of elected officials, physicians and residents told state officials Wednesday night.

But opinions were mixed on whether Prime Healthcare Services, a for-profit chain from California, is the right buyer to take over St. Mary's Hospital.

"Many residents don't have cars to go to other hospitals," said Passaic Mayor Alex Blanco, a podiatrist. "This hospital is very important for us."

The hospital's 1,200 jobs are vital to the community, he said, and its presence is necessary to attract investors.

The hospital, founded almost 120 years ago by an order of Catholic nuns to provide care to the poor, sought a buyer three years ago because it was "running out of funds to care for patients," said its president, Edward J. Condit. Without a sale, he said, the hospital will close.

But some residents expressed concern about Prime's track record in California, after two employees of one of its hospitals there told of difficult working conditions. The workers are part of the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, which has been in a bitter contract dispute with Prime since it took over.

"I have a lot of questions," said Sally Gellert, a local resident. "I would like to think that Prime is sincere. I would like to think that we can trust them. But I'm skeptical."

The state Health Department should appoint a monitor to make sure that Prime lives up to its commitments to maintain current health services as well as charity care, said India Hayes Larrier, speaking on behalf of New Jersey Citizen Action, an organization of community groups and unions.

Several doctors said they had confidence that Prime would invest in new technology and equipment, enhancing the quality of care while maintaining the community atmosphere.

"We are very excited, with high expectations of improving our facilities in every department," said Dr. Peter Uhm, an oncologist.

The meeting ended after two hours and testimony from only 34 people, although more than 70 had signed up to testify — leading some members of the audience to protest.

"It's an injustice and unfair not to allow the general public to speak," said Diego Martinez, of the United Passaic Organization, a non-profit community service group. The auditorium was full of local residents, he said, but the panel had called mostly on doctors and nurses.

Wednesday night's hearing was the first of two to be held by state officials this week as they review the proposed sale of the 269-bed hospital. The second, called by the Attorney General under the Community Health Assets Protection Act, takes place tonight.

The State Health Planning Board meets on Feb. 13 to vote on a recommendation to the state health commissioner about whether to approve the sale. Members of the public can testify at that hearing or submit written comments by Jan. 30. The health commissioner has until June 19 to make a decision.

Final approval, however, rests with a judge of the state Superior Court, who will receive a recommendation from the Attorney General as well as the Health Commissioner.

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