Is CT Behind the Curve on Hospital Oversight?

By Lynne Ide

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The juggernaut Hartford HealthCare (HHC) recently took steps to eliminate services at the struggling Windham Community Memorial Hospital (WCMH), which offer a clear signal that oversight of hospital consolidation may be behind the curve.

HHC has acquired several Connecticut hospitals in recent years – including two in eastern Connecticut in Windham and Norwich.

At issue is the state’s Office of Health Care Access (OHCA) contention that no Certificate of Need (CON) approval is needed for WCMH to “transition” its Critical Care Unit to a Progressive Care Unit.  Advocates, and WCMH’s own Division of Medicine, disagree.  In fact, the hospital’s Division of Medicine took a unanimous vote opposing HHC’s move to close the Critical Care Unit  – and the doctors point out that HHC and WCMH administrators have not met with them about the decision.

Advocates, nurses and doctors from northeast Connecticut contend that decisions to transition the WCMH Critical Care Unit to a Progressive Care Unit will leave patients and health care providers in the Windham area short on appropriate care in a time of need; force more patients to be diverted to Hartford Hospital or Norwich’s Backus Hospital at increased cost via helicopter or private ambulance service; exacerbate access to care and transportation issues for rural and/or low-income people; and, contribute to the erosion of WCMH’s viability.

Earlier this month, a number of organizations weighed in with OHCA – raising questions and submitting evidence regarding HHC and WCMH arguments that approval via the CON process should not be applied – as the hospital is not “closing down” a unit, but rather “transitioning” to a different kind of unit.

In addition, the advocates presented Jewell Mullen, Commissioner of the Department of Public Health (which includes OHCA in its organizational oversight) with over 3,000 postcards from people in the Windham area asking for OHCA to hold a public hearing before determining that services at WCMH can be eliminated.

OHCA asked WCMH to respond to the concerns raised by advocates.  The Hospital responded with a perfunctory letter on Oct. 22 – sticking with their claim that no CON approval is needed.

The ball is now in OHCA’s court.  Will they open a CON process and allow public input on a decision that may prove critical to the future of Windham’s hospital?

The situation begs the questions: Is Connecticut behind the curve on oversight in the wake of an increasing trend in consolidation of the state’s health care and hospital services?  Is quality of care, access to care, choice and cost suffering as a result of no overarching state plan?

What happens in Windham may only be the tip of the iceberg.

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