Hospital conversion bill focus on unions [Waterbury Republican-American]

March 12, 2014

Waterbury situation in forefront

Article as it appeared in the REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

HARTFORD — The uncertain future of Waterbury Hospital overshadowed a committee vote Tuesday on a piece of legislation on hospital conversions.

Waterbury Hospital and Tenet Healthcare Corp. are seeking state approval to form a for-profit venture that they contend will bring financial stability to the struggling community hospital and secure its future.

One proposed merger with a for-profit partner fell through, and if the Tenet deal flounders, the president of Waterbury Hospital has warned it has few options.

As expected, the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee advanced legislation setting rules for converting hospitals from nonprofit operations to for-profit ventures.

The Public Health Committee is also considering two bills on hospital conversions.

The subject is getting so much attention because several nonprofit hospitals are contemplating converting to profit-making ventures. At this time, Sharon Hospital is the state’s only for-profit hospital.

The labor committee’s bill would require hospitals maintain pay rates and benefits of all employees employed at the time of conversion, keep up staffing levels for three years after a conversion receives final approval, and recognize labor unions and honor existing union contracts.

Additionally, the legislation would require a hospital’s host community hold a minimum of three public hearings on a conversion plan.

The prospective buyer would be required to report on how the conversion is expected to affect employment. Its representatives would also have to submit to questioning from members of the public.

If a conversion is approved, the new ownership must submit a strategic five-year plan to the departments of Public Health and Labor detailing how decisions to add or halt health services at the hospital may affect employment.

The plight of Waterbury hospital was a focus of the labor committee’s debate Tuesday.

“Let’s call it what it is. This issue is dealing with Waterbury Hospital. Not that there may not be others, but the most imminent issue before us as a state may be Waterbury Hospital,” said Rep. Sean J. Williams, R-Watertown.

The well-documented financial struggles of Waterbury Hospital and Saint Mary’s Hospital are taking a toll, said Sen. Terry Gerratana, D-New Britain. Each hospital is having difficulty fulfilling its goals and mission, she said.

Democrats and Republicans on the labor committee disagreed Tuesday over the possible repercussions of the bill for Waterbury Hospital and any other nonprofit hospitals looking to convert to a for-profit model.

Sen. Joseph C. Markley, R-16th District, said the legislation could make it impossible for Tenet Healthcare Corp. to go ahead with its planned partnership with Waterbury Hospital. His district includes part of Waterbury.

Williams said the provisions on maintaining pay and staffing levels in the labor committee’s bill could possibly scare off private companies.

I’m not so sure a company may look at that and say this is a good place for us to come in and invest our capital,” he said.

Republicans complained the bill was one-sided because of all the protections afforded to hospital unions and their members.

Gerratana, the Senate chairwoman of the Public Health Committee, backed the pro-labor provisions.

“We need only look to other states that have undergone this. Rhode Island has put protections in place in their statutes, also as well as many other states to make sure everyone is fairly treated,” she said.

The unions representing nurses and other workers at Waterbury Hospital are supporting the legislation. Waterbury Hospital and other members of the Connecticut Hospital Association are opposing the bill.

The Democrat-led labor committee voted 8-4 along party lines to advance the bill.