Plainfield crackled with the news Thursday afternoon that Solaris Health Systems was putting Muhlenburg Hospital on the block.
While the news shocked many and dismayed some, it may actually be a blessing in disguise.
When Solaris was formed in 1997 by joining Plainfield's Muhlenberg and JFK of Edison, it was seen by many observers as a shotgun marriage. Hospitals had been going through a period of change from the 1980s, leading to many consolidations as an effort to pool resources and manage ever-increasing costs.
From the outset, Solaris was dominated by the larger JFK enterprise, and Plainfield nerves frayed as it became clear that Solaris seemed clueless as to the realities of running an urban hospital.
In addition, Plainfielders' resentment has simmered beneath the surface at perceptions that --
- Muhlenberg was stripped of resources to bolster JKF (which has its own financial problems);
- Strengthening the physician base was skewed toward JFK and away from Muhlenberg; and
- Marketing Muhlenberg in an increasingly competitive healthcare scenario was not a high priority in Solaris' public relations mix.
A BLESSING IN DISGUISE?
Coming, as it does, just as Gov. Corzine's 'rationalization' panel (what an unintended irony in the name!) is about to make recommendations on hospital closings throughout the state, the news does not set Solaris an easy course. Especially since the national crisis over charity care reimbursement does not look likely to ease until there is a change in the White House.
But an opportunity is presented to find a candidate that actually understands urban hospitals and has a track record at running them successfully.
Rumor has it that an appraisal commissioned by Solaris has set a value in the $40M range. Muhlenberg would not be a bride without a dowry.
Among the hospital's valuable assets are --
- An up-to-date facility with modern equipment and systems;
- The new Harold B. and Dorothy A. Snyder School of Nursing;
- A nationally top-rated Coronary Intervention program (which beat out Overlook, Mountainside and Somerset Medical in HealthGrades® recent national rankings);
- A nationally commended Cancer Care program;
- Bariatric Surgery and Wound Care specialties; and
- Community goodwill -- which has enabled the hospital to raise hundreds of millions of dollars over the years through the Muhlenberg Foundation and the activities of the Muhlenberg Auxiliary.
One that comes to mind is Lousville-based Merit Health Systems LLC which this past June bought Mountainside Hospital in Montclair. As a for-profit healthcare corporation, such a purchase would signal the end of Muhlenberg's non-profit community hospital status. This is seen as an increasingly inevitable outcome nationwide, given the financial constraints on hospitals, and it is part of the seismic shift in health care.
A TO-DO LIST
This new situation puts a to-do list in front of several players beyond the Solaris board.
MUHLENBERG'S OWN BOARD has an opportunity to play a strong role, both in pushing Solaris to mind its fiduciary obligations to Muhlenberg and in insisting on developing an intensive physician and staff retention program to ensure that Muhlenberg does not hemorrhage its talent pool in the time it takes to sell the hospital.
ASSEMBLYMAN JERRY GREEN can show his mojo by batting down any suggestion by the governor's 'rationalization' commission that Muhlenberg should be on the 'shutdown' list.
THE GREEN/ROBINSON-BRIGGS ADMINISTRATION can get off its behind and do something about establishing the Medical Enterprise Zone (MEZ) that was proposed by the McWilliams administration a few years ago. Despite the obviously critical situation for Muhlenberg, nothing whatsoever has been done by the current administration to implement this important economic development and marketing tool.
Firmly establishing such a zone by further extending the Urban Enterprise Zone boundary down both sides of Park Avenue past Muhlenberg to the South Plainfield line would be a significant first step.
Developing a highly targeted outreach to physician practices -- especially those whose specialties, such as imaging, involve expensive medical equipment -- could turn Park Avenue once again into a Doctor's Row that draws on and feeds into Muhlenberg. One advantage for medical practices to locate in such MEZs is that capital purchases (such as large, expensive equipment) would be exempt from the NJ sales tax. That would come to $70,000 on a $1M piece of equipment. Starts to sound like real money, doesn't it?
Finally, THE PLAINFIELD COMMUNITY and the residents and patient base of MUHLENBERG's SERVICE AREA, which includes such surrounding communities as North Plainfield, South Plainfield, Fanwood, Scotch Plains, Watchung, Warren, Dunellen and Piscataway, need to press their elected officials to see that everything possible is done to ensure a positive outcome to the situation.
Is the sale of Muhlenberg a blessing in disguise?
It can be, but only if all the players get to work on their to-do lists.
Ledger: "Financial losses force sale of Plainfield hospital"
Muhlenberg: "Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center"
Wikipedia: "Hospital" -- An overview of the history of hospitals.
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