L+M union questions hospital's plans

Providence - The Lawrence + Memorial Hospital workers union used the first public meeting of Rhode Island hospital regulators on L+M's application to purchase The Westerly Hospital to raise concerns about the nonprofit hospital's use of a subsidiary.

"I would like the community to be aware of some of the practices of the hospital," Stephanie Johnson, president of the licensed practical nurses and technicians union, one of three AFT unions at L+M, said after the Thursday afternoon meeting of the Rhode Island Department of Health panel considering the application. "If they're doing this in New London, they'll do it in Westerly."

Greg Kotecki, field representative for AFT, said L+M is diverting unionized jobs into one of its subsidiaries, L+M Physicians Associates, so that the jobs become non-union. Thus far, six positions have changed from union to non-union, he said, but, "Where does it end?"

"They've got plans to shift other departments," he said, referring to plans to move behavioral health services out of the main hospital into LMPA doctors' offices throughout the region. The union has objected in an unfair labor practice charge filed Jan. 25 with the National Labor Relations Board.

During the meeting, Ole Kushner Hermanson, field representative for AFT, read a list of questions he said should be answered before the Rhode Island panel decides on the application. Among the questions were several about LMPA and how it is being used. As part of L+M's $69 million offer for Westerly Hospital, physicians who were part of that hospital's subsidiary, the Atlantic Medical Group, would become part of LMPA.

In response to the issues raised by the union, L+M spokesman Mike O'Farrell said L+M is putting its attention toward completing the sale.

"Our focus is on working through this process to get to a closing date as quickly as possible and bring Westerly Hospital up to the strength we know it can be," he said.

The application under review Thursday is one of three pending with Rhode Island agencies that would need to be approved for the sale to be complete. Members of the health department's Project Review Committee of the Health Services Council asked several questions of L+M President Bruce Cummings and Stephen Zubiago, attorney for L+M, as well as of attorney Mark Russo, special master for Westerly Hospital while it is in receivership. The committee did not indicate any specific problems with the application.

Cummings, Zubiago and Russo were directed to submit answers in writing for the next meeting, which is expected to take place in two weeks. L+M and Russo are hoping for a decision by the end of March.

Most of Thursday's meeting was taken up with a presentation by Zubiago on the application and explanation of L+M's offer.

During the public comment portion, Westerly Town Manager Steven Hartford, president of the Westerly Hospital Area Residents Committee, said the committee supports the sale with some conditions pertaining to women's care services, Westerly Hospital's charitable foundation, and other areas.

Jackie Desmond, president of the nurses' union at Westerly Hospital, expressed support on behalf of the 600 union members, despite its disappointment over Russo's announcement last month that obstetrics services would be discontinued June 1.

"Maintaining the hospital is vital to our community, and access to care must be maintained," she said. "We are concerned about obstetrics services, but L+M has granted us the chance to work with them on determining what women's health care will look like in the future."

j.benson@theday.com

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