St. Clare’s Hospital will surrender its operating license after 60 years of service and consolidate with Ellis Hospital, using a $50 million state grant announced Thursday.
Within the same grant announcement, the state gave Schenectady County $3 million to cover planning costs associated with building a new 200-bed nursing facility as a replacement for the aging Glendale Home.
“It is very sad when an organization as fine as this ends. It’s the end of an era,” said St. Clare’s CEO Bob Perry. “Ellis will take responsibility for all of the care in the community.”
Ellis currently has no plans to close the St. Clare’s McClellan Street campus, but does plan to take over its property and other assets. When the process is completed, St. Clare’s will cease to exist as a separate, Catholic hospital in Schenectady County, leaving Ellis as the sole provider with three campuses: its own on Nott Street; the St. Clare’s campus; and the former Bellevue Woman’s Hospital campus in Niskayuna.
The Commission on Health Care Facilities in the 21st Century, known as the Berger Commission, mandated closure of Bellevue and consolidation of Ellis and St. Clare’s. The recommendations became state law Jan. 1.
Ellis CEO James Connolly called the pending demise of St. Clare’s “bittersweet. We have great reverence for what they have done and we are very clear in understanding the responsibility that we now take on.”
Connolly said Ellis plans to continue St. Clare’s mission of providing care to the poor and uninsured. St. Clare’s is a key part of the safety net that provides primary care services to people with little no or health insurance in Schenectady County. Its emergency room is the third busiest in the Capital Region, but more than half of its visitors have little or no coverage.
Ellis expects to lose money providing care to this vulnerable population, Connolly said, but the hospital will seek to maximize income by reducing redundant services and through other cost-cutting measures, which he did not specify.
Perry said neither hospital can afford to absorb the others’ patients as of yet, and as such, both will likely keep their emergency rooms open.
Connolly said Ellis is evaluating staffing for the combined operation and that it anticipates offering employment to many of St. Clare’s staff. He added some job losses are likely, though. Ellis will conduct public meetings to gather information on the reconfiguration of services.
County Legislator Dr. Brian Gordon said he hopes Ellis includes groups representing doctors, patients and business and community leaders. Gordon wants discussions of “how to rationalize services. It is imperative we make sure this new health system achieves the goal of maintaining our excellent facilities and services. The closed door negotiations should end.”
John Assini, president of the Schenectady County Medical Society, said St. Clare’s will continue serving the poor if not in name then in spirit. “Their mission isn’t going away because the hospital is the people and hopefully many of these people will remain to provide care to community,” he said.
Assini said many view the proposed consolidation as in the best interest of the community. “I would hope this will result in a stronger health care system,” he said.
Connolly did not provide a time frame, but said “We are going to need to move expeditiously. We are concerned about the financial status of all three hospitals and of the other health care institutions in the community. We also need to figure out a better way to integrate with primary care groups in this community.”
Perry said Bishop Howard Hubbard of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese, which sponsors St. Clare’s, and the hospital’s Board of Trustees approved the decision to voluntarily surrender St. Clare’s operating license.
“The option of continuing independently was not possible for us because of the people we serve,” Perry said. “I congratulate the bishop and the board. They made a difficult decision, but the best shot Schenectady has for efficiency is to come together as one organization.”
Dr. Arnold Ritterband, chairman of the Schenectady County Committee on Health Care Issues, said the $50 million state grant “will make it much, much easier for the two hospitals to come together under a single governance agreement, which will allow them to function more effectively in many ways and give them more clout when negotiating with HMOs for reimbursement rates.” Paul Drisgula, CEO of Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson, said his agency believes the two hospitals have found “the right path” in their efforts to consolidate.
Planned Parenthood raised concerns about access to abortion and other reproductive services in Schenectady County when the state mandated Bellevue’s closure.
“We are confident the surviving institution, no matter what facilities it eventually operates, will continue to support the full range of reproductive health services available in our community today in a manner that neither stigmatizes nor isolates the women who seek them,” Drisgula said.
State Department of Health spokeswoman Claudia Hutton said the state will have to approve any configuration of services to ensure they meet the needs of the community.
“None of the services will be jeopardized, but Ellis and St. Clare’s may decide that certain kinds of treatment should be provided at one campus and certain services at another,” Hutton said. “We won’t dictate what they have to do.”
DOH Commissioner Dr. Richard F. Daines said the $50 million grant to the hospitals and the $3 million grant to the county will provide “Schenectady County with the opportunity to move forward in planning and restructuring acute, primary and long-term care services provided to the residents of the county. We look forward to a continuing dialogue with the providers, physicians and consumers in the county as we work toward an integrated health care delivery system to meet the needs of all residents.”
Ellis will use the $50 million grant to fully cover St. Clare’s employee pension obligations, totaling $28.5 million, and to settle St. Clare’s debts, for employee severance and medical malpractice costs and to cover operating costs associated with the McClellan Street campus.
St. Clare’s unfunded pension obligation was a sticking point toward further consolidation talks between the two hospitals. With the grant, Perry said the state “has recognized the good service of the people here. The pension is unfunded because St. Clare’s cares for the poor and it couldn’t make the contributions.”
Ellis asked the state to cover the full pension obligation in an application it submitted last summer. The state had promised to award grants by the end of the year and the delays that followed caused concern among the medical staff and others, Assini said.
“We have been anxious and concerned about the decision and there is an element of relief that a decision has been made,” Assini said.
Schenectady County will use the $3 million grant to meet Berger Commission mandates that it downsize the Glendale Home. According to county officials, the state has agreed to allow the county to build a facility with 200 beds — 32 more beds than Berger recommended.
“We were excluded from the negotiations regarding the hospitals, so we focused our efforts on the nursing home to ensure we that can provide quality nursing home care to our residents, and we won that fight,” said county spokeswoman Theresa Cassiack.
Berger mandated the county reduce the number of beds at the skilled nursing home from 360 to 168. The county balked at this reduction and put in an application to build a new 240-bed facility. A county official said the county may obtain additional beds beyond the 200 already approved.
Gordon said the grant will allow the county to “build a new nursing home that will ensure we will be able to maintain nursing care in a state-of-art environment in Schenectady County.”
Hutton said the latest awards are in addition to previous awards the state gave to assist with the closure of Bellevue Woman’s Hospital and to help Ellis take over provision of women’s health care services at the former Bellevue campus.
The state also provided $500,000 in grants to two other safety net primary clinics in Schenectady County: Hometown Health and the Schenectady Free Health Clinic.