Community United demands answers on hospital merger

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WATERBURY, Conn. - One by one, workers, local clergy, health care advocates and women's groups took the microphone at the Board of Aldermen meeting here to demand answers about the sale of Waterbury and St. Mary's non-profit hospitals to LHP, a for-profit joint venture firm from Texas.

The residents had joined together into Community United because they were concerned about their jobs, their health care and their city's tax base. They fear that the new private equity venture will drain profits from the city, add to the jobless rate, create a monopoly that hikes health care costs, and restricts care for all.

There are 3,900 people who work at the two hospitals, which are the city's largest employers. It is unknown how many jobs will remain under an LHP merger, which is a big worry in this town with 12% unemployment.

LHP has already begun outsourcing entire departments of unionized workers at Waterbury Hospital. The laundry department was the first casualty.

"LHP didn't tell the administration to lay them all off," Brenda Morisette, a patient care assistant and union leader, said about the laundry workers. "It didn't have to. The two current workforces will not fit into one new workplace."

"I worked here for 24 years, after the factory closed down," one of the women laundry workers explained. "Now where will I go?" she wondered.

Next came the emergency room. Six emergency room doctors resigned from Waterbury Hospital after it was announced that emergency room services would be outsourced to EmCare, a Dallas-based company that will provide emergency department physicians to the hospital.

When questioned about the resignations by local media, residents expressed alarm.

"Are you really going to come here and give us better care," asked Steve Schoeller, "or are you just here to make money?"

For-profit hospitals were not permitted in Connecticut until Republican Gov. John Rowland vetoed "unnecessary government regulation" in 1997.

It was reported then in the Hartford Courant that for-profit companies were interested in buying some of Connecticut's 32 nonprofit hospitals. The nation's largest for-profit hospital chain, Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., under federal investigation at the time, had hired a well-known Connecticut lobbyist at the state Capitol.

The top officers of LHP are all previous leaders of Columbia/HCA.

Daniel Moen, chief executive officer of LHP Hospital Group, Inc., located in Plano, Texas, has failed to meet with community leaders in Waterbury despite dozens of attempts by them to get their questions answered.

The company website claims to be community friendly and states, "Our joint venture model includes a community needs study, and the joint venture partnership is structured in a way that frees up capital to focus on additional issues."

But residents aren't buying it when they cannot even have a conversation, and LHP will own 80% of the shares.

Community United for Jobs, Healthcare & Opportunity formed last year in response to the proposed hospital merger. The labor and community group, which includes the hospital workers' union 1199, the Western Connecticut Central Labor Council, health care advocacy groups and local churches, neighborhood and women's organizations, began by conducting a survey of 1,000 community residents in every neighborhood.

The results were clear: 92% of those surveyed agreed to the goals of protecting union jobs and creating new jobs for those who live in Waterbury; expanding health care so it is affordable and accessible to all; and community involvement in all decisions affecting its care. Over 1,000 pledge cards were signed at door-to-door canvasses, churches, workplaces and community events.

Community United members are very upset that Moen has failed to sit down with them to discuss their plans. "We have written to him, called him, asked politicians and physicians to contact him," says Brenda Morisette of 1199. "But he still won't set a date."

The group is trying to learn the intent of LHP and determine how they can improve health care and protect good jobs while pursuing their private profit mission.

Waterbury residents are concerned that LHP will seek public funds in the form of tax breaks or loan forgiveness at the expense of the city's tax revenue. When the hospitals lose their nonprofit status Waterbury will lose $6 million a year in PILOT funds (payment in lieu of taxes) from the state. In Florida, LHP was granted a seven-year property tax break.

It has been confirmed that LHP's merged hospital will not provide the women's health services that Waterbury Hospital now offers, in a concession to St. Mary's. LHP's current proposal is to ship women patients off to a separate facility if they need the reproductive procedures restricted by Catholic guidelines. This has alarmed the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women and Planned Parenthood, who are now working with the labor/community coalition to challenge the takeover.

Community United also has questions about what will happen to the current overflow of patients at the two hospital emergency rooms, if there is only one hospital. Waterbury and St. Mary's Hospitals rank among the highest for the number of patients seen and for long waiting times. Residents want to know LHP's plan to ensure health care access.

A fact sheet distributed by Community United asks, "So do you want this new hospital venture in Waterbury to fail?" and then answers, "No! We want to make sure that a small group of Texas businessmen don't come into our state, cut access to health care, make money, and then sell! If a for-profit group wants to do business here, it should have to sit down with the community and the affected employees to plan a future that works for all."

Meanwhile Community United continues to gain support among Waterbury residents and local community groups and organizations in defense of workers' jobs and health care accessibility. To lend support or stay in touch with their progress, go to their Facebook page.

Photo: Joelle Fishman/PW

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