From Sentinel & Enterprise
Written By Amanda Burke
FITCHBURG -- The City Council on Thursday decried UMass Memorial HealthAlliance-Clinton for announcing the impending closure of its Burbank Campus Urgent Care center without gathering input from the community it serves.
UMass said in late May the center would close because of budgetary constraints, citing declining Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements as having contributed to the deficit.
The news didn't sit well with the Massachusetts Nursing Association, which alleged UMass pulled in $251 million in profits between 2013 and 2016.
UMass spokeswoman Kelli Rooney said in May that UMass Memorial Health Care is losing money, having posted a $14 million operating loss in second-quarter earnings through March 2018.
On Thursday night, the City Council voted unanimously to endorse a resolution condemning the closure of the urgent-care unit. At-Large Councilor Marcus DiNatale and Ward 1 Councilor Amy Green were absent.
"The City Council finds that such a closure ... would disproportionately impact the thousands of residents of the city of Fitchburg and have a negative impact on heath care accessibility in the region," the resolution stated, as read by City Council President Michael Kushmerek.
The Worcester-based heath care system also announced in late May it plans to close the pediatric intensive-care and cardiac-rehabilitation units in Leominster.
Kushmerek said the announcement of the impending closure of Fitchburg's urgent-care unit falls in line with "consistent" losses in the city's medical facilities.
Jobs in the sector were lost, too, he said.
The emergency room at the Burbank campus closed in the 1990s, and the psychiatric inpatient facility closed within the last decade, he said.
That dealt a blow to the city's economic base, he said. More importantly, he said, it made health care less accessible, particularly for those in poor neighborhoods who will be forced to travel greater distances to find adequate health care.
"We're a large city, we're a sizable city, and for us not to have a nonprofit urgent-care facility in Fitchburg would be, at times, disastrous," he said.
Kushmerek, who introduced the resolution, said a review of UMass finances show the nonprofit hospital chain is on a "profitable track," citing profits of $28 million "in recent years."
He said health-care organizations must be sustainable, and he does not wish for UMass to go bankrupt. But UMass should "weigh community impact to work with us to ensure ... they're still providing the necessary health-care delivery to our residents."
Speaking during public comment, Leominster At-Large City Councilor Sue Chalifoux Zephir stated her opposition to UMass' decision to close the cardiac rehabilitation and intensive pediatric care units in Leominster.
Chalifoux Zephir said she has not seen "data or impact statements on displaced patients."
UMass has pointed to the for-profit CareWell Urgent Care Center in Fitchburg as a replacement for Burbank, she said, but receiving treatment there requires that patients present a credit card. Transportation to the center, located about two miles away from the Burbank campus, could be an issue for some.
Chalifoux Zephir called for increased transparency and partnership between UMass and the communities it serves.
"We just need to be more of a partner in determining what those services are going to look like," she said.
Kushmerek said CareWell is a for-profit entity affiliated with UMass. Receiving medical services there requires a credit card, a barrier for residents who are poor and for first-generation Americans, he said.
Ward 5 Councilor Marisa Fleming said based on personal experience she knows that CareWell does not treat infants under 6 months old.
At-Large Councilor Anthony Zarrella said that while he generally rejects government reach into private business, medical nonprofits receive "special tax considerations" and should serve the community. He said the community has not been adequately included in the closure process.
"We need a more transparent process and we need one that involves the community," said Zarrella.
At-Large Councilor Sam Squailia said at a recent legislative breakfast attended by Deborah Weymouth, the hospital system's president and chief executive, she was told that daily patient volume at Burbank urgent care fell from 38 in 2015 to 26 in 2018.
She echoed Chalifoux Zephir's concern over the lack of community involvement in the closure process, and noted how CareWell, unlike Burbank Urgent Care, does not have a doctor on site.
"There wasn't really a good outreach to the community, the transparency is noted, and the community should be a partner within the organization of HealthAlliance," she said.