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Westerly — Speakers at two sparsely attended hearings Wednesday urged Rhode Island officials to approve the sale of The Westerly Hospital to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital as soon as possible, saying that lingering uncertainty about its future has been harmful.
"The longer this process takes, the more uncertainty there is in the medical staff," said Dr. Rob Harrison, medical director of Westerly Hospital, adding that several doctors and nurses have left during the 15 months the hospital has been in receivership. "Westerly Hospital will be greatly strengthened by this acquisition. I urge you to move as quickly as possible."
Harrison addressed his remarks to Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Fine and other officials from the two state offices who will decide on L+M's application to purchase Westerly Hospital for $69 million. The two agencies hosted two public hearings Wednesday at Westerly Middle School to get public input on the pending decision.
"We are here to listen about what this hospital means to the people of the community," Kilmartin said.
All 11 who spoke supported the sale, though three speakers urged the panel to consider requiring L+M to preserve obstetrics care locally. Citing financial reasons, the special master in charge of Westerly Hospital during its receivership announced in January that obstetrics care will be eliminated by the end of June, before L+M would assume ownership. The proposed sale agreement would require L+M to maintain all services provided at the time of closing for at least two years.
"We do need something to try to keep OB services here," said Linda Guilfoil of Westerly, who works in the hospital's women's health center.
Richard Sorensen said that in 1940, he and his twin sister were the first babies born at Westerly Hospital, and his daughter was also born there.
"I hope and pray we'll continue to deliver babies at Westerly Hospital," he said.
Jack Felber, owner of The Olympia Tea Room in Watch Hill, said the sale would help preserve the hospital as a key contributor to the local economy. The services it provides are especially important in a town with thousands of summertime tourists, he added.
The chairwoman of the Westerly Hospital Foundation's board of directors, Jennifer Schwindt, said her group is satisfied that the proposed agreement will ensure that donations made to Westerly Hospital are used by Westerly Hospital, not combined with other L+M funds.
"We fully support this application," she said.
Town Manager Steve Hartford and Ed Russell, both members of the Westerly Hospital Area Residents Committee, also spoke in favor. Hartford called the proposed deal "the best possible partnership that can be made," with sale conditions that will protect Westerly Hospital into the future.
"We need this deal done," Russell said.