BURNHAM - Emotions ran high for a time Thursday evening as Lewistown Hospital hosted a town meeting to allow area
residents an opportunity to ask questions about its proposed merger with another health
Sentinel photo by LAUREN?LINHARD
Diane Carter, center, of Lewistown, speaks out Thursday evening during a town meeting hosted by Lewistown Hospital regarding a proposed merger. Dozens of area residents and health care professionals asked questions and voiced concerns about a merger during the meeting, which was held at the Quality Inn in Burnham.
Nearly 100 community members and area medical professionals packed the conference room at the Quality Inn in Burnham, where the meeting was held. The recurring theme voiced in many of their questions and concerns: Geisinger Health System.
The meeting began cordially enough, with local media personality Jed Donahue serving as a moderator for the public and the panel of hospital administrators, board directors and physicians who were on hand to answer questions. The panel included Lewistown Hospital President and CEO Kay Hamilton, Chief Financial Officer Randy Tewksbury, Board Directors Don Chapman Sr. and Jon Zimmerman, and physicians Dr. Jose Acosta and Dr. Cathleen Veach.
The panel fielded a number of questions from those in attendance, ranging from concerns about the hospital's School of Nursing and continued acceptance of health insurance to potential job loss and an exodus of local doctors from the community. Then the discussion became heated when some in attendance claimed the hospital's own practices are responsible for its reported declines in market share and revenue since 2004.
"A big part of the problem is patients are being told (by hospital doctors) to go to Danville (Geisinger Medical Center) - that is the reason you're losing cash flow," said Diane Carter, a medical professional employed in Lewistown.
"It's because of the pro-Geisinger system Kay has put in place, and employees are afraid to say anything for fear of losing their jobs," Carter said. "What does that mean for patients? Half just decide to go to Geisinger, and the other half just leave the area."
Dr. Acosta began to respond to Carter's statements but was interrupted by several outbursts from other physicians and medical professionals among the audience. Donahue asked for order in the room so that Acosta could reply.
"When the Hospitalist program was started, the Geisinger doctors were chosen because Penn State Hershey had been asked, but said they were not able to take it on. Please do not make statements that are unfair," Acosta said. He was referring to the Hospitalist Program, a a collaborative venture between Lewistown Hospital and the Geisinger Health System that has been in place for several years. Hospitalists are physicians who specialize in treating people who have been admitted to the hospital, and their role is intended to complement the care people receive from their personal or private physicians.
Tewksbury also offered a response to Carter's statement about declining market share.
"Since 2004, we've lost 12 percent of the market share (in this region). However, it's not all been Geisinger - it's been evenly split between them, Hershey, Pinnacle and Mount Nittany," he said.
Hamilton added "It's also because we don't have full coverage (enough doctors) in our Emergency Department and on-call."
Earlier in the meeting, Hamilton had emphasized that there is no deal or agreement yet with any outside medical organization, and that any references to Geisinger Health System are based on assumption. But a number of those in attendance stated they had grave concerns about the potential of Geisinger Health System being one of the outside parties interested in a merger.
Some in attendance expressed concerns that Geisinger does not accept their respective health insurance plans. Others countered that those living in the area who have Geisinger insurance could face the same problem if the merger partner turned out to be Penn State Hershey.
Barb Miller, a medical professional employed with Dr. Stephen Solomon's office, said she has very strong objections to Geisinger's way of conducting business.
"Note I do not object to the quality of their medical care; in fact, I think it's wonderful. But I feel if they take over (the hospital), their business practices and corporate policies will be a detriment to this community," Miller said.
Dr. Solomon, who also was in attendance, said he worked as a Geisinger physician for 19 years before opening a private practice in Lewistown.
"Twenty years ago, they (Geisinger) had zero percent of the market share. Now they have 70 percent," Solomon said. "Geisinger's policy is to identify weakness and exploit it. I think they have wonderful doctors, but I know this is their policy."
When asked who will ultimately make the decision about whether to pursue and agree upon a merger, Hamilton said the decision will be made by the 15 board members and 363 corporate members of the Lewistown Healthcare Foundation, which is the the non-profit organization comprised of community members that manages the hospital and its operations.
Hospital surgeon Ned Ridings, D.O., commented on the role of the Lewistown Healthcare Foundation in the decision making process regarding any merger.
"I just want to say to all the (Foundation) members: Go to the annual meeting and get your a- in the chair. Forget the proxies - go there and vote!"
Dr. Ricardo Carter, who serves as medical director of the hospital's cancer services, also offered his perspective on the concerns expressed by area physicians and medical professionals.
"I think everyone needs to understand that we have our opinions, and this situation is still developing. But we want everyone to understand that our goal is to preserve the choice of the people regarding their medical care," Dr. Carter said.
Some of the other questions addressed by the panel during the meeting include the following:
Q: What will happen to the school of nursing?
Hamilton: There is no deal or agreement yet, but the terms would include keeping the nursing school open.
Q: Is the hospital or merger partner looking to buy the F.W. Black Building (in Lewistown) as a new location for the nursing school, and where is the money going to come from to buy it?
Hamilton: This is how rumors get started. We made one visit to the building and determined that we do not want to use hospital money to buy and repair the building.
Zimmerman: Actually, with the proposed combination of Downtown Lewistown Inc. and other agencies to become an 'Improvement Corporation of Mifflin County,' we see a lot of potential for that building to become something more than it currently is ... but at this point, the hospital board of directors is not considering it.
Q: What level of input has been received from the doctors about a potential merger?
Acosta: There have been a number of forums, and there is a committee of physicians who are being asked for input. Not all of them like it (a potential merger), but we have a voice. I personally am in favor of a merger. We are losing cash, and we do not want to wait until we are broke to ask for help. It is better to do so now, when we are still in a position of strength.
Veach: As a representative of Family Health Associates, we've had meetings and I've given their input and feedback to the hospital. Recruiting new physicians has been difficult, but it's also an issue of retention. The shortage of doctors results in a higher workload and more stress, and doctors decide to leave the area.
Q: What is a merger likely to look like? Will it be similar to the mergers that occurred in Shamokin and Bloomsburg?
Tewksbury: It's going to depend on what agreement is entered into. If it is with a for-profit group, they buy you hospital and own it. They'll give money to the hospital and expect it to pay off it's liabilities. If it's with a non-profit group, the ownership of those liabilities is simply transferred.
Additional information about Lewistown Hospital, the Lewistown Healthcare Foundation and its board of directors is available online at www.lewistownhospital.org.