LEWISTOWN - A number of area residents and medical providers voiced concerns Monday about plans for a proposed merger of Lewistown Hospital with another medical group.
Those concerns were heard by the Lewistown Healthcare Foundation Board of Directors during its July meeting held at the hospital on Monday evening. Hospital President/CEO Kay Hamilton had announced Thursday that the board is reviewing proposals for a potential partnership with a larger health care organization.
Board Chairman Fran Evanitsky opened the meeting with a period for public comment. Dr. Eric Fowler, a family physician with a practice in the Belleville area, was first to speak.
Sentinel photo by BRADLEY?KREITZER
Dr. Raj Malhotra, left, expresses his concerns Monday regarding a potential merger of Lewistown Hospital with another medical group, as hospital President/CEO Kay Hamilton, center, and Lewistown Healthcare Foundation Board Chairman Fran Evanitsky listen. Malhotra was one of several area residents and medical providers to speak during the board’s meeting held Monday evening at the hospital.
"I think it's important for the board to understand that many medical providers in the area have grave concerns about one of the potential partners, and that is the Geisinger Medical Group and Geisinger Health System," Fowler said.
"On a day-to-day basis, I'm finding it difficult to provide care for my patients who are part of that system. I find there are difficulties and challenges faced by patients of (Geisinger) that are unique to that system," he said.
Fowler cited several examples from among his own practice, including a patient that was preparing for a military deployment to Afghanistan but had to wait for hours at a Geisinger facility in order to receive an MRI. Another patient, who was employed as a physical therapist, was required by Geisinger to undergo six weeks of physical therapy before being authorized to receive the medical injection needed to treat her specific condition, Fowler said.
"I think there also are concerns for small business owners regarding the availability of health insurance for their employees," he said. " I don't think the Geisinger folks are bad people ... but I feel their system has limits, and that should be cause for concern."
Area resident Teresa Cunningham also expressed concerns about health insurance.
"My concern is if Geisinger is involved in this move, they don't take my insurance. So what am I supposed to do?" Cunningham said.
Hamilton explained that the specific answer to that question is unknown at this time, because the hospital has only recently begun to review the proposals submitted by other interested medical groups.
"But part of that process will include a review of any proposal we would select by the state Attorney General's office, which would address that very concern," Hamilton said.
Area resident Gail Hepler said she is concerned about the potential for local health care providers to leave the area.
"We have developed relationships with our doctors, and we love the doctors that we have. But if our doctors have to become part of this other group, is that going to cause them to leave?" Hepler said.
Hamilton said the hope of the hospital and the board of directors is that local health care providers would not feel compelled to leave the area, but the specifics are yet to be negotiated.
"We will not sign an agreement unless those major issues are covered," Hamilton said.
Barb Miller, a medical professional employed with Dr. Stephen Solomon's office, questioned the authority of the board of directors to enter into any type of partnership or merger with another medical group.
"The Lewistown Healthcare Foundation bylaws state that approval for a sale or merger has to come from the Foundation members, not just the board of directors," Miller said.
Miller expressed concern that proxy ballots would go out to the Foundation - a nonprofit organization made up of community members that oversee the hospital's operation - before its members had sufficient information to make an informed decision about any proposed partnership or merger.
"The last time I checked, this is still a democracy, and the people have a right to choose," Miller said. "I want to see the democratic process followed and see all of the Foundation members have all of the information at their disposal."
Hamilton responded by saying the hospital is in the very early stages of the process, and that the board is very much aware of the Foundation's right to vote on any proposal.
"There is no intention on the part of this board for that vote not to occur at the appropriate time," Hamilton said.
Dr. Raj Molhotra also urged the board to proceed with caution as far as any partnership with an outside medical group.
"I've lived and worked here for 35 years. We've been through recessions, depressions and floods ... but I love this area," Molhotra said.
"There's nothing like having community control of your hospital. Once you give that away, I don't care who it is or what they promise - it is a time bomb," he continued.
Molhotra said it is unrealistic to expect an outside group to invest $100 million or more in the hospital without expecting something in return, particularly when it comes to exercising control over how the hospital conducts its business.
"I think we can survive without somebody else coming in and taking control. I would like to see the board of directors examine all angles and carefully weigh any decision," Molhotra said.
After hearing the comments from the public and area medical providers, hospital CFO Randy Tewksbury presented the hospital's June financial statements to the board. Tewksbury noted that the hospital's current assets for fiscal year 2012 stand at about $95 million - nearly $2 million less than in fiscal year 2011.
"This decrease in assets is reflective of the continued difficulties in the economy. It is also due to a decline in revenue resulting from a decline in hospital admissions," he said.
Regarding Family Health Associates, Tewksbury said its revenue is up by about $75,000 for the current fiscal year, but is still falling short of the projected budget revenue.
"About 45 percent of the revenue coming into the hospital is a direct result of patients coming in from FHA. It's a very significant piece of the hospital's income," he said.
In other business, the board approved a motion for directors Don Chapman Sr., John W. Gehman, MD, and Diane Spokus, Ph.D., to appear on the upcoming ballot for renewal of their terms as directors on the board. The motion also included a nomination for area resident Randy Sheaffer to appear on the ballot.
Near the end of the meeting, the board also received a report from Dr. Ketankumar Sheth, president of the hospital's medical-dental staff, regarding a recent informational meeting conducted with Kaufman Hall, a Chicago-based firm that advises hospitals on potential mergers.
"Some concerns were brought up by the staff in attendance at that meeting, and some of the concerns were the same ones expressed here earlier today," Sheth said. "They (the staff) felt some of their questions were answered, but some were not."
In particular, Sheth said the staff still has questions about a potential merger or partnership, and how exactly it would be executed. Sheth said the staff would very much like to have another informational meeting to address these questions.
Hamilton acknowledged that Kaufman Hall is the national consultant currently advising the hospital administration and board of directors as they examine proposals for a merger or partnership. She also said a memorandum recently was sent out to the medical and dental staff announcing that another informational meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Aug. 14 inside Classroom 4 at the hospital. That meeting will be open to all members of the medical and dental staff, but is not open to the public or the press, Hamilton said.
According to its website, Kaufman Hall is " ... an independent consulting firm that offers integrated strategic, capital, and financial advisory services and software tools to healthcare organizations of all types and sizes. Our goal is to help hospitals and health systems achieve best practice strategic financial management that produces tangible, measurable, and improved financial results."
Additional information about Kaufman Hall can be found online at www.kaufmanhall.com. More information about Lewistown Hospital, the Lewistown Healthcare Foundation and its board of directors is available online at www.lewistownhospital.org.