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George Epstein: Memorial Hospital Brake Failure

Memorial Hospital Chair Gene Bergoffen says loss of local control “need not be a concern.” Hmmm. Let’s see — MaineHealth, a $1.5 billion conglomerate will own Memorial and will have:
√ Approval of the CEO.
√ Approval of the operating budget.
√ Approval of the capital budget.
√ Approval of any new services.
√ Approval of members of the board of trustees of Memorial.
√ $250,000 in annual “dues.”
The hospital website calls this “input on Memorial’s operations.” I call it complete and utter control by the Portland conglomerate.
But perhaps it is local control we should be afraid of. We had a highly choreographed stealth “hearing” Thanksgiving week which would have been very poorly attended had not The Conway Daily Sun chosen to highlight the event. Community members had less than half an hour to be heard, while being lectured for over an hour by pre-selected speakers. Then we were all sent home. We were told the next “hearing” would be in February. That wasn’t true. Instead, the board announced they have approved the handover of our hospital, yet they will hold another “hearing” April 11!
Numerous hospital staff members have told me they have been flat-out threatened with their jobs if they speak out publicly in opposition to the deal. Morale is described as “abysmal.” The names of the board members have been removed from the website so they will be harder to contact with feedback or objections. The Memorial Hospital has served our community and been supported by our community for 100 years, and now a small group of individuals wishing for anonymity and secrecy wish to hand it over to a Maine corporation. Is this how we do things in the Valley?
And what do we get for handing our hospital over to MaineHealth? Not much. The website offers only two benefits. First, we will get “locally delivered specialty care and community health and wellness programs.” Perhaps we will. If we pay for them. The MaineHealth CEO told the board that each and every clinical program offered by MaineHealth was available to Memorial — whether we hand over the hospital or not. Either way, we have to pay for them. That’s on top of the $250,000 per year we pay MaineHealth.
Second, MaineHealth will provide “$1.5 million in financial support for a new integrated patient electronic medical records system.” I don’t have room to describe how misleading this is. It’s funny money — an accounting allocation. Switching to their software will cost Memorial (meaning us) a fortune, and that is after Memorial has blown all the federal money that supports the purchase of electronic medical records on other software products — hundreds of thousands of dollars of products purchased over the past 36 months that will now be thrown out.
That’s it. We will get to pay for health and wellness programs we can buy without giving up control of our hospital and we will get to pay a pile of money for their record system.
This is a business deal that is great for MaineHealth. They get $250,000 a year and ownership of another hospital and they pay nothing for it. Memorial Hospital generates profits of $1-4 million a year on revenue of about $50 million. As the hospital in Boothbay Harbor discovered, if you can’t make money, MaineHealth will not put up a penny to help you out. You close the doors.
“Our decision to pursue this membership followed an extensive review of our options,” said Bergoffen. Now there’s a whopper! We have no idea what any other hospital might offer or even what we might get without having to hand over the keys to the building. The board has refused to request options from all the other N.H. hospitals that are looking for partners. Why refuse to consider those other options?
This is our community hospital. We have a right to be heard – to a real “hearing,” not a lecture scheduled to minimize our input and our questions. Memorial Hospital is a financially strong institution with no need to rush into a shotgun wedding. We have time to assess all the potential partners and affiliation options that are out there. The N.H. Attorney General’s Office can stop this runaway train if the trustees have failed to perform adequate due diligence (or any due diligence). If you view our hospital as a crucial community institution, you might consider the following:
1. Attend the hearing on April 11 at 5:30 p.m. and demand to be heard. Do not allow Mr. Berghoffen to again cut off discussion after his pre-scheduled speakers have tied up the 90 minutes.
2. Demand answers to your questions. Don’t get blown off with vague generalities.
3. If you are a hospital employee, attend as a group and speak up. The hospital has no right to threaten your jobs because you have an opinion on this topic. We need to hear from non-physicians on this.
4. Demand to know why the board refused to speak with other hospitals. Why was MaineHealth the pre-chosen owner? Of course, Maine Med is the largest referral source from Memorial. That will continue regardless of what business arrangement we enter into. That’s no reason to ignore other, much more beneficial arrangements in what is solely a business deal.
5. At the very least, demand another hearing when the deal terms are complete and available for all of us to read. I have read the terms of the MaineHealth deals with other hospitals — those they were willing to share — and they are very one-sided.
6. Ask for a list of board members and their contact information so they can really “hear” from the community they are supposed to represent. And email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , Director of New Hampshire’s Charitable Trusts division with your opinion on the deal.
Finally, Bergoffen says, “One of my dreams about this whole arrangement is it will move us in a direction of being able to find ways to reduce the costs for our patients.” This isn’t about dreams or unicorns or sugar plums, it’s about doing the hard work necessary to be damn sure we are making the right once-in-a-century decision about our hospital. If you think we need not do anything today, or that we should talk to other hospitals and find out what they offer, or if you think the process followed is irresponsible or all of the above — make sure you are heard!

George Epstein is a former member of the Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees. He lives in Madison.
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