A Cape Ann citizens' group is calling on Northeast Health System to include, as part of any merger or sale agreement, a written commitment that it will maintain the core facilities that support Addison Gilbert Hospital's standing as a licensed emergency services provider.
Dozens of concerned citizens attended a pair of community meetings held in Rockport and Gloucester on Tuesday. The forums were organized by longtime nurse and health-care advocate Peg O'Malley through the Partners for Addison Gilbert citizens group, largely in response to growing talks regarding a possible Northeast sale or merger.
Northeast CEO Ken Hanover confirmed to the Times last week that his company, the corporate parent of Addison Gilbert, has been in potential merger or affiliation talks with four other Eastern Massachusetts-health care and hospital service providers — Lahey Clinic, Beth Israel Deaconess, Vanguard Health Systems and the Steward Health Care System, which includes Caritas hospitals.
Hanover said the talks were aimed at exploring the desirability of a strategic or primary alliance and that a decision on whether to proceed is expected later this year.
O'Malley said the Partners for Addison Gilbert group and residents from across Cape Ann "want to be a very strong player in any negotiations going forward."
Though O'Malley considered the forums to be successful, Northeast Health Systems has still declined to oblige the community's top request — a written guarantee of the hospital's preservation as an emergency care facility.
The consensus from the Rockport meeting, where more than 40 people crowded the Police Station community room, O'Malley said, was that residents would like an opportunity to hear again from Hanover in a public setting, and that Rockport's Board of Selectmen should take the lead to organize such an event.
"They want Hanover to speak directly to them, and for people to have an opportunity to ask him questions," O'Malley said. "Specifically, for information as to what effect (Northeast Health System's) requests for proposals or any other kind of affiliation would have on Addison Gilbert."
Selectman Chairman Andrew Heinze, who attended the Rockport forum, indicated that the board would look to schedule a public forum with Hanover similar to one held in town last spring. In addition to city, town and hospital officials, representatives from the offices of state Sen. Bruce Tarr and Congressman John Tierney also attended one or both of the public forums on Tuesday
While a non-management employee represented Northeast Health System at the Rockport meeting Tuesday afternoon, Cynthia Cafasso Donaldson, vice president for ancillary services at Northeast Health and the on-site chief of Addison Gilbert, attended the Gloucester discussion.
In a phone interview with the Times on Wednesday, Donaldson said Northeast had already planned to hold "several more" forums in both Rockport and Gloucester to keep the public informed on a variety of issues, and would welcome the opportunity to participate in community discussions.
As of Wednesday, no firm dates or times had been set for those forums.
Hanover offered some reassurance to Addison Gilbert advocates during a forum in May at the Rockport Public Library, telling the audience that he was committed to providing "those eight services" — the eight minimum services that must be available in a hospital to be an emergency services provider.
O'Malley said Thursday those comments in Rockport had been "really helpful" but were somewhat "weightless" without the appearance of those same assurances in writing from the Northeast Health board.
"We are very strongly committed to persuading (hospital officials) that, as part of the conditions of any merger or sale, it be guaranteed in writing that, at a minimum, the essential services we need will be maintained in the future," O'Malley said.
Those essential services include adequate operating room facilities immediately available for life-threatening situations, including around-the-clock availability of a surgeon and anesthesiologist.
"A lot of people, myself included, have a lot of doubts whether or not the surgeon and anesthesiologist services are still available, but (hospital officials) say that they are, and would be able to respond to any life-threatening emergency at AGH," O'Malley said.
Donaldson reiterated yesterday that the hospital has "availability 24/7," effectively meeting the state requirements.
O'Malley said Hanover has made multiple assurances to the people of Cape Ann that the eight services are there and that he is willing to keep them there, but remains unwilling to put it into writing.
"It mystifies and worries us as to why they won't commit that to writing," O'Malley said.
While grateful for the community's passion for their hospital, Donaldson said it was still premature to discuss any affiliations or merger deals.
"(Hanover) has already made a commitment to the community that (Northeast Health System) is committed to keeping AGH open," she said, adding "beyond that, it's just too early to talk about any other discussions."
While "thrilled" that Donaldson attended the Gloucester forum, O'Malley said it was "worrisome" she was unable to deliver the responses most sought after by those in attendance.
"I was thrilled that (Donaldson) attended the evening forum; she tried very hard to be cooperative, but I think decisions are being made above her level," O'Malley said.
For her part, Donaldson said the hospital appreciates the community's concern and support, but added that "we're all on the same page."
"We all appreciate the value of AGH and are working very hard to maintain the services that are necessary for our community," she said.
"We're all committed to a lot of communication going forward," Donaldson said. "From the hospital side, our plan is proactive communication."
Jonathan L'Ecuyer can be reached at 978-283-7000 x 3451 or firstname.lastname@example.org.