SCHENECTADY — A day after an outpouring of community concern at a forum on the proposed Ellis-St. Peter’s hospital partnership, an organizer said Friday she was heartened both with the public response and the hospital administrators’ willingness to listen.
The main point of contention is the potential impact a partnership with a Catholic hospital system would have on Ellis Medicine and the services provided at its various locations. Organizers and speakers alike both expressed concern about Catholic doctrine affecting reproductive care offered to patients and inclusion of the LGBTQ community.
St. Peter’s Health Partners is part of Michigan-based Trinity Health, one of the largest Catholic health-care systems in the nation. As such, SPHP follows the 77-part Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services dictated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Michelle Ostrelich, a Schenectady County legislator who is part of the Schenectady Coalition for Healthcare Access, said Friday that Ellis CEO Paul Milton and the Ellis trustees have been listening to the comments, and she believes they care about the issues being raised.
“I think they are taking our concerns to heart,” she said.
St. Peter’s Health Partners and Ellis Medicine announced their tentative plan in October and said the next step would be more intense discussion and review. The initial expectation that a partnership could be finalized by January 2022 is gone, an Ellis spokesman said Friday. It will take longer.
Much still needs to happen. The two entities need to reach an agreement, decide on its details, request a certificate of need from the state Department of Health, and obtain DOH approval.
Ostrelich said the opportunities to influence the state’s decision are limited, so the coalition is focusing its efforts on shaping the proposal that is put before the state.
The formation of SPHP itself in 2011 has been very instructive, she added. When Samaritan Hospital in Troy became part of SPHP, the reproductive health care services forbidden by the bishops’ directives were preserved in a separate entity called the Burdett Care Center.
The arrangement worked as far as it went, Ostrelich said, but there was no funding stream created for Burdett and could not sustain itself. It ceased to exist last year, and the forbidden services are no longer offered at Samaritan Hospital.
In a similar partnership involving Ellis, this type of situation would have potential impact not only on Ellis Hospital but on Bellevue Woman’s Center, the OB-GYN hospital Ellis Medicine operates in Niskayuna.
“We’ve learned the hard way from Burdett’s lesson,” Ostrelich said. What is agreed upon in principle or verbally as part of the partnership must be spelled out in writing in the certificate of need, she said, and a mechanism must be put in place to make sure it is carried out as described and that it endures.
The level of community appreciation shown for Ellis at Thursday’s virtual meeting was heartening, she said.
The two hospital organizations said in a joint statement that they appreciated the input and would continue to engage the public as the process goes forward. The goal is to expand and improve the health care available to the community, they said.
Specifically addressing the concern about Catholic restrictions on fertility, pregnancy and other medical treatments, SPHP CEO Dr. James Reed said Friday the issue is a central one in discussions between SPHP and Ellis. There are new models nationwide for integrating religious and non-religious health care, and those are being examined closely, he said.
Ellis Medicine is a relatively new entity, formed when the state ordered consolidation of Ellis, Bellevue and St. Clare’s hospitals in 2008. It has undertaken numerous projects since then, some with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars, but nothing has been as far-reaching as becoming part of another health care system, which is a long-running trend in the hospital industry nationwide and locally.
At Thursday’s virtual meeting, Ostrelich mentioned multiple changes already underway at Ellis Medicine, independent of the potential SPHP partnership.
Ellis is outsourcing physician management at its emergency department, looking for new uses for its McClellan Street campus (the former St. Clare’s site), shutting down its visiting nurse services, and giving up ownership of its dental clinic.
Ellis spokesman Philip Schwartz provided details Friday:
- Hometown Health will take over operation of the dental clinic and continue to operate it on the McClellan campus, if the state approves the certificate of need for the move; only the signs would change.
- The visiting nurse service was unable to cover its expenses; the decision to close it was reported in December.
- Emergency department outsourcing is an industry trend, and will help Ellis recruit physicians.
- The McClellan Street campus is aging and partially vacant; Ellis wants to find a more efficient use for it, possibly through partnership with a developer or outright sale.
The last two points are relatively new: The outsourcing agreement has not taken effect yet, and the redevelopment of McClellan is only in the exploratory stages, Schwartz said.
Envision Physician Services will become Ellis’ partner in the Emergency Department later this year, he said, adding that there will be little visible sign of the change to the public: The current Ellis doctors will remain there under new employment while the nurses and other staff will remain Ellis employees.
Envision is a national presence in the outsourcing industry, and has gained some fame beyond the industry over unexpected out-of-network provider charges. New federal legislation has reduced the threat of this “surprise billing,” and strong legislation previously enacted in New York had already prevented it here.
SPHP has worked with Envision since 2015.
The plans for McClellan Street are undetermined; there’s only a plan to make plans.
“There’s not a for-sale sign out in front of the property,” Schwartz said.
The campus currently houses numerous smaller departments for Ellis Medicine: the nursing school, a walk-in primary care clinic, a nursing home, pediatric care, offices for finance, human resources and IT employees, and, in recent months, a pop-up COVID and flu clinic.
The buildings are old and partly vacant and the campus offers more space than needed, Schwartz said.
Ellis Medicine could remain on-site as a tenant if it reaches agreement with a developer, or it could move its services and personnel off-site. Quarters are tight at Ellis Hospital on Nott Street but there is a large unfinished space above the Emergency Department and the structural strength would allow additional floors to be built above that.
Schwartz said there’s a sentimental and emotional attachment among some area residents to the McClellan campus, because of its 60-year run as St. Clare’s.
“We want to respect that and also recognize it’s not an efficient use of space and it’s expensive to maintain.”