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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Lawrence and Memorial Hospital: Looking Deeper

Likely buyer of Westerly Hospital is far from top-notch
By Will Collette

While I think most area residents are hoping for a happy ending to Westerly Hospital’s financial woes, their likely savior, Lawrence & Memorial Hospital of Stonington, may not bring about much of an improvement.

Westerly Hospital is for all practical purposes bankrupt. It has been hemorrhaging staff. It is closing its entire obstetrics department. It has been on life support for months now and, without a bail-out, the hospital will be closed.

If L&M’s purchase of Westerly Hospital goes through as expected in the next month or so, it means Westerly Hospital will remain open, probably without huge changes for at least five years, if we are to believe L&M’s promises.

But based on L&M’s record and ratings, it seems unlikely that they will improve services at Westerly Hospital or even fix the problems that pushed Westerly to the point of extinction.

Lawrence and Memorial has its own financial problems. They recently closed a portion of its $3.2 million deficit by laying off 22 staff. Shelling out another $69 million to buy the ailing Westerly Hospital seems like a poor prescription for cash-strapped L&M.

The staff unions at L&M also accuse the hospital management of questionable labor practices by using a hospital subsidiary, L&M Physicians Associates (LMPA) to shift union jobs to this non-union subsidiary. The unions charge the hospital is shifting entire services such as behavioral health out of the hospital and into LMPA.

The L&M workers have filed unfair labor practice charges against the hospital with the National Labor Relations Board. The union at Westerly Hospital expressed its support and solidarity with the L&M unions, but also noted that L&M’s buy-out means Westerly Hospital survives. No L&M buy-out probably means Westerly Hospital closes its doors.

The Westerly staff are concerned about the future of obstetric services in particular. According to Westerly Hospital nurses union president Jackie Desmond, “we are concerned about obstetrics services, but L&M has granted us the chance to work with them on determining what women’s health care will look like in the future.” In other words, under L&M, Westerly Hospital stays alive and there's some hope of salvaging some semblance of a women's health care program.

In an earlier article, I reported on the latest comparative ratings of New England hospitals and noted that while South County Hospital is ranked as the best in Rhode Island and in the Top Twenty in New England, Westerly Hospital is way down in the rankings at #121 out of 176 hospitals. Lawrence & Memorial ranks even lower, near the bottom of all New England hospitals at #156 of 176.

Medicare’s website offers a free database that allows you to do side-by-side comparisons of hospitals. Click here. Putting Lawrence & Memorial side-by-side with Westerly Hospital and South County Hospital shows you why the facilities were ranked the way they were.

Lawrence and Memorial (and Westerly) also compare unfavorably with South County Hospital on emergency services, always a key concern for the community.

Another hospital rating service also raises doubts about whether L&M’s takeover will result in improvements at Westerly Hospital. L&M is generally weak in the same categories as Westerly, and both hospitals are rated lower than South County Hospital in most categories.

L&M received a five-star rating in only 2 out of 22 specialty areas – knee and hip replacement – while receiving the lowest, one-star rating in four specialties: coronary intervention, neck and back surgery and prostate surgery.

The terrible rating in hip and back surgery may be one reason why L&M closed its Sports Medicine Program last June. This forced local high schools and college athletic departments to look elsewhere for services.

I understand that if the L&M deal doesn’t go through, that’s probably the end for Westerly Hospital. For that reason alone, I hope the deal is consummated. First, survival, and then we can deal with making Westerly Hospital a better place.

I think it will probably take a continued amount of community pressure to make sure that this deal results in a better Westerly Hospital, rather than just settling for giving Westerly a little while longer to live. From the evidence I’ve seen, L&M management will need to be pushed to do better in Westerly than they’ve done in Stonington.

The next public meeting on the L&M-Westerly merger is scheduled for Wednesday, March 27 at the Westerly Middle School, 10 Sandy Hill Road, Westerly. Public comment will be accepted during the scheduled public informational meetings. Two sessions will be held on March 27 - one from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and the second from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

You can also file comments on the plan until April 3. Click here to review the documents.