Massena Town Council allows hospital to move forward with privatization

Clyde Leffler, Massena, a 20-year employee at Massena Memorial Hospital who works as a clerk in the endoscopy unit, protests against the proposed privatization of the hospital Wednesday night before a Massena Town Board meeting at the Massena Town Hall. Photo by Jason Hunter, Watertown Daily Times

Clyde Leffler, Massena, a 20-year employee at Massena Memorial Hospital who works as a clerk in the endoscopy unit, protests against the proposed privatization of the hospital Wednesday night before a Massena Town Board meeting at the Massena Town Hall. Photo by Jason Hunter, Watertown Daily Times

MASSENA —Town Council members voted Wednesday to allow Massena Memorial Hospital to move forward with becoming a nonprofit facility, but it doesn’t commit them to actually shedding their municipal status.

Councilman Samuel D. Carbone Jr., who had several questions about the two-page resolution, voted against the measure.

“It’s not a final transfer of anything,” said town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray.

The move came despite opposition by many in the packed town hall meeting room, following a rally of union members that began an hour earlier in front of the town hall. They carried signs with messages like “Let town residents vote. It’s our hospital,” and chants of “No more lies. Don’t privatize.”

“I want to thank everybody for coming tonight for supporting the right for everybody to vote for their own public hospital,” said Civil Service Employees Association Local President Kerrie French.

Among other unions represented during the rally and later at the meeting were the New York State Nurse’s Association, New York State United Teachers and Massena Permanent Firefighters Local 2220.

“It’s all about solidarity, everybody standing together,” said Walter Bean, president of Local 2220.

During the meeting, Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, said she was prepared to sponsor legislation that would allow the hospital to become a public benefit corporation, which she suggested would benefit both the hospital and its employees.

“I am here to specifically make sure that all of you know that I am prepared to sponsor legislation in the state Legislature to provide an alternative to either the status quo or privatizing the hospital. I would propose legislation that would turn the hospital into a public benefit corporation, which I believe would address many of the concerns that the hospital administration has,” Ms. Russell said.

“What I am here to say is that every institution has a cost of doing business, like their employees, their salaries and their benefits. But what we are experiencing in health care is something much larger. We cannot ignore that. So I think we need to look at options like a public benefit corporation which will allow the hospital to be able to function in the modern health care era without disturbing the long-bargained-for salary and benefits of employees that make up the hospital,” she said.

Ms. Russell said her concern was that employees who were going to be taken out of the current benefit system with a transition to a nonprofit facility would leave for other jobs where they could retain their state benefits.

“Ultimately I believe the hospital’s ability to function would be greatly hindered and it would put the hospital in a very precarious position,” she said.

That plan had the support of the CSEA, according to Ms. French, who said it had been suggested by officials with the state Comptroller’s Office as an option to privatization.

“We want to see our hospital saved. We want to keep our jobs. We want to the hospital to be here long-term. Please look at the other options. It’s not just for our pensions. There are other options out there that give the hospital what it wants, the flexibility to affiliate. It can be done faster than privatizing,” she said.

But the pension plan was a concern for some of the speakers. Ms. French said their members had agreed to a wage freeze for three years to compensate for their continuation in the state pension plan and its costs, and they were now on year two of no raises and looking at losing their state pension benefits.

Linda Smith, a member of the state Nurses Association, said during the rally that some employees had been in the system for more than 20 years and would now lose that state pension benefit if the hospital became a nonprofit facility.

“The alternative is nothing,” she said.

A representative from the New York State Nurses Association who spoke during the meeting said the nurses were already paid $6 to $8 less than other registered nurses in the area “because they have a good pension.”

“What happens when that is not around?” she wondered. “Do you think Massena Memorial Hospital is going to come up with $6 to $8 more? They’re going to have a mass exodus of nurses.”

Resident Gary VanKennen suggested to board members that they needed to keep the hospital as a municipal facility.

It’s an opportunity to save an institution in a form that serves employees and the community,” he said.

Councilman John F. Macaulay, however, said privatizing would improve the hospital’s standing. He said data at Canton-Potsdam Hospital, a private facility, showed growth in the number of patients and doctors.

“Anecdotally, Canton-Potsdam Hospital is in a lot better shape than we are,” he said.

Richard Noreault, a legislative coordinator for CSEA, said union officials were willing to work with the hospital and town to come to a compromise that would benefit everybody.

“Let’s work together. We can work cooperatively with all interested parties for everyone’s benefit. We want to work cooperatively,” he said.

Not everyone was in favor of keeping the status quo, however. Dr. Richard Gramer, an anesthesiologist who has been working an independent contractor at the hospital since Memorial Day, said the hospital could not survive if it didn’t make the move to become a nonprofit. He said that unless the hospital made the move, “I believe the entire future of Massena Hospital is very much in question. I don’t see much of a future he

re for myself unless this happens.”

Resident Joseph Macaulay said that if the hospital didn’t make the move, the taxpayers would foot the bill when it came to the Town Council to seek bonding for equipment and projects. He said that if the hospital couldn’t afford the bond payments now, it wouldn’t be able to in the future.

“Somebody’s going to pay those bonds. If the hospital doesn’t have the money, it’s going to be us,” he said.

Hospital Chief Executive Officer Robert G. Wolleben, at Wednesday’s meeting with other hospital administrators and members of the Board of Managers, said they estimate needing $20 million over the next several years to address equipment and projects. That includes $2.75 million a year to replace outdated equipment, $6.2 million to revamp the emergency room and approximately $2.8 million to modernize inpatient rooms.

By Bob Beckstead, Watertown Daily Times