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Meir Rinde

 

Hospital reversal: Trenton ER could stay open

Capital Health reconsiders fate of its Mercer facility

 

By Meir Rinde

Staff Writer

Jan. 14, 2011

   

TRENTON — Capital Health may end up keeping the emergency room and some other facilities at its Mercer hospital open indefinitely, reversing a controversial plan to close the building when it completes its new medical center in Hopewell Township later this year.

A company spokeswoman said the building’s status is still up in the air, but other people involved in local public health issues confirmed that previous closure plans are off the table. They include members of city council, the city’s former health director and the CEO of St. Francis Medical Center.

“The state requested that Capital Health maintain its emergency room,” said West Ward Councilman Zachary Chester, who also works for Capital Health. “Capital wanted to not maintain that emergency room, but it looks like now, from what I’m hearing, that that’s going to be maintained.”

The fate of the Mercer hospital on Bellevue Avenue has been a major concern to West Ward residents and city officials since 2006, when Capital Health announced it would build a new hospital outside of Trenton and eventually close Mercer.

The state Department of Health and Senior Services initially required the company to keep the emergency room open for three years after closing the rest of the building. Then in December 2009, the department agreed to allow the emergency room to close when the rest of the hospital shut down, provided that Capital Health help continue operation of the Family Health Center across the street from the hospital and pay into a fund for city health services.

But in recent months, that plan has changed again, for reasons that are not completely clear.

One issue is the future use of the aging hospital building, a major community anchor in the West Ward. Trenton’s acting health director, Joseph Rubino, and St. Francis CEO Gerard Jablonowski said Capital Health has had difficulty finding a buyer.

Another factor may be a delay in implementation of the Trenton Health Plan, which called for Trenton’s low-cost, federally funded clinic, the Henry J. Austin Health Center, to take over the Family Health Center and other clinics around the city. Henry J. Austin ran into financial and management problems last year, leaving Capital Health with the ongoing responsibility for that facility, according to former city health director Carolyn Lewis-Spruill, Jablonowski and others.

“I think they’ve been asked to rethink the entire transition plan, because Henry J. Austin delayed coming in to take over the clinics,” Jablonowski said. “The state said, we need to relook at the plan, so keep (the emergency room) open until we evaluate it.”

Jablonowski also said the national health reform law passed last year by Congress and signed into law by President Obama might actually make emergency room operations more financially worthwhile to Capital Health and other organizations because it will provide new funding for the care of people who are currently uninsured.

In addition to maintaining the emergency department, Capital Health would keep some other offices in the hospital open, according to Chester, but it is unclear what services would continue to be provided. Jablonowski said his understanding is that state health officials are expected to decide on Mercer’s future by March.

The company’s plans for Mercer “are not finally resolved right now, and we’re having discussions with the state,” said Capital Health spokeswoman Jayne O’Connor.

Capital’s decision years ago to build a new medical center in Hopewell Township drew an angry condemnation from then-mayor Douglas Palmer, who argued that the company was overlooking potential locations for a new hospital within the city and abandoning its patients and the wider community in Trenton.

Capital Health officials said the organization’s financial survival depended on gaining access to suburban patients, and pointed out that they were spending tens of millions of dollars on facility upgrades at its Regional Medical Center on Brunswick Avenue, formerly known as Fuld Hospital.

The $530 million medical center in Hopewell is scheduled to open this fall.

Under the Trenton Health Plan, the city, Capital Health, St. Francis and Henry J. Austin have been working to set up a system of low-cost clinics inside the hospitals and at other locations that would serve as “medical homes” for residents, particularly uninsured residents whose dependence on free emergency room care is costly to hospitals and the state.

But Henry J. Austin had management and recession-related financial problems last year that included the departure of some managers, including chief operating officer Susanne Johnson.

“We were right along the fold with corporations that had to have cutbacks and layoffs and other changes,” said Dr. Kemi Alli, Henry J. Austin’s medical director. “We were struggling and right now we’re in a good place. We have a sound financial recovery plan. We definitely plan to be around for years to come.”

Despite the uncertainties, the Trenton Health Plan is still progressing. Jablonowski said the city and the three health providers have created a nonprofit organization to organize the new clinic structure and an accompanying health information system, and are applying for grant funding.

 

Article also available on NJ.com.

 

Copyright © The Times of Trenton 2011