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Massena Town Council taking time on MMH privatization plan

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MASSENA - Those who were expecting the Massena Town Council to move ahead with plans to turn Massena Memorial Hospital into a not-for-profit facility didn’t see that happen Thursday.

“We haven’t set a time frame. The hospital board has already taken action,” Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray told those who crowded the meeting room at the Massena Town Hall for a public information session on the hospital’s future.

“I think there was a misconception that a vote would be taken at this meeting. It would be irresponsible to make a decision without all the information. We have a set of figures and they don’t jive in many cases. We have to reconcile them,” Deputy Supervisor Albert N. Nicola said.

Mr. Gray said it wasn’t an action that they could take likely because of the impact it would have on the community and the hospital employees.

He said that during Thursday’s meeting board members would be asking hospital officials to justify their plans and also asking employees to justify why it should remain a municipal entity.

“We should be asking questions regarding jobs. We don’t need any more posturing. We need to get down to facts,” Mr. Gray said.

He said that, as part of their deliberations, the town board might elect to do their own review of the hospitals financials before making any decisions.

Mr. Nicola suggested that one of the keys to successfully moving through the process was communication.

“I think, as I look at this, going back nine, 10, 11 months since we sat down, I think communication is key. Communication must be opened,” he said.

“The public has come to this board (the town board) three times. In the three times they’ve come, they feel communication is a key, that it’s critical,” he said.

Mr. Nicola said they had reached out to officials at Lewis County General Hospital, which is also a municipally owned facility, for some advice.

“They’re saying, ‘Don’t be rushed into a premature decision that affects so many people,’” he said.

“Lewis County has had the privilege of receiving over $6 million from the county to keep them operational. They’ve had time,” MMH Chief Executive Officer Charles F. Fahd II said, adding that if Massena Memorial Hospital had that advantage, “we wouldn’t be here talking.”

“We’ve got $5 million in the bank and we’re burning cash at $135,000 a day. We can’t take our time. It can be months, but it can’t be years,” he said.

Councilmen wondered if hospital officials had looked at a health care plan that members of the Civil Service Employees Association said they had provided them, which they had suggested could cut back on costs. Mr. Fahd said they had and it wasn’t advantageous.

“We took that plan and gave it to our insurance people. They ripped it apart” and determined it would cost a half million more than the hospital is currently paying, he said.

“Have you looked at other plans?” Councilman John Macaulay asked.

“Absolutely. My director of human resources has looked a dozen plans,” Mr. Fahd said.

Mr. Macaulay also questioned if a statement by CSEA officials that pensions would be declining in the years ahead instead of increasing were true. Hospital officials have said their pension costs are chief among the factors driving them to bankruptcy.

“I’m hoping somebody has documentation here tonight to show me in fact pensions costs will decline. I want to see documentation from the Comptroller’s Office,” he said.

“It’s absolutely not happening,” said Lloyd Arakelian, a certified public accountant with Freed Maxick Healthcare, the organization hired by the hospital’s Board of Managers to study possible privatization of the facility.

“They are not decreasing. I don’t expect them to decrease,” he said.

CSEA officials have also said that employees have offered to take a pay freeze, which Mr. Macaulay said could financially benefit the hospital.

“If you froze them for three years, you could avoid bankruptcy in three years,” he said.

“What happens moving forward?” Mr. Fahd asked.

He said he had heard several proposals that indicated they could save money in 2015. But, Mr. Fahd said, the underlying problem would still exist in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

“It won’t go away,” he said.

Although the town board made no decisions on the hospital’s status Thursday night, Mr. Macaulay suggested that keeping the status quo was unlikely.

“It will be totally irresponsible for everybody in this room to allow that to happen. We would immediately start cutting services. We would immediately start laying people off,” he said.

When making the decision, he said he wanted to go by several “guiding principles” brought up by Mr. Fahd during a presentation - to keep MMH open; to continue to provide excellent medical care and a wide of range of services; to be financially viable; to be fair to our employees; to retain our physicians and specialists; to protect the taxpayers; to be accountable to the community; and to make decisions that are in the best interest of the community.

“I like this. This is what is going to drive the decision,” he said.

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