From Sentinel & Enterprise
By Peter Jasinski
LEOMINSTER -- The crowd of about 20 former patients, current nurses and local leaders gathered on the sidewalk outside UMass Memorial HealthAlliance-Clinton Hospital's Leominster campus Wednesday evening once again spoke out against the pending closure of some of the hospital's services.
The protest covered a lot of the same arguments already made. However, there was one possible glimmer of hope for the hospital's biggest critics.
Closing Leominster's inpatient pediatric unit, pulmonary and cardiac rehabilitation units, and Fitchburg's urgent care center will ultimately be decision made by the hospital, but Leominster City Councilor Sue Chalifoux Zephir revealed Wednesday that she's been in communication with the UMass Memorial Health Care's administration for a meeting on the closures.
"We haven't really discussed who would be there, but he contacted me and I followed up," she said. "I'd like to get this done soon. Time is of the essence."
Chalifoux Zephir said she was contacted by James Leary, vice president of government and community relations for UMass Memorial Health Care. While she said she was uncertain as to when the meeting might happen, Chalifoux Zephir said she sees it as an opportunity to directly present the case for the services at risk of being shut down.
"What I want to do with all of these representatives here today is really make them understand the impact these closures will have," she said.
Beyond the revelation that local leaders may soon meet with the hospital's administration, Wednesday evening also served as another platform from which opponents could speak out against UMass Memorial Health Care's plans.
The hospital maintains that the closures have been necessitated by low daily patient volumes for each service, however several hospital employees warned that cutting them could be a danger to the community.
"It is unconscionable to force families to access health care outside of their community," said Erin Mangsen, a pediatric nurse at HealthAlliance. "The time the ride takes to Worcester or Gardner, even by ambulance, could be a matter of life and death to a precious child."
Elected leaders like Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale and state Reps. Hank Naughton, Stephan Hay and Natalie Higgins also spoke at the protest, criticizing UMass Memorial Health Care for cutting services needed by the community.
"HealthAlliance has reprehensibly turned their backs on the diverse socioeconomic communities that surround Fitchburg's Burbank campus," said Fitchburg City Council President Michael Kushmerek.
"In doing so, they are denying access to quality health care for the thousands of residents who live within the immediate vicinity of the facility and who depend on its proximity."Another issue raised by protesters was Leominster's inpatient pediatric unit recently being deemed an "essential service" by the state's Department of Public Health, yet still being a target for closure. Both representatives Hay and Higgins spoke about legislation they are co-sponsoring to give the state the authority to withhold funding from community hospitals that choose to cut essential services.
"What brought me out here today is my concern of who gets to determine what an essential service is," said Hay. "I feel I have the responsibility to stand up for the people of the district who say they don't want the hospital to make that determination."
The protest concluded with Chalifoux Zephir saying there could be similar demonstrations in the future.
"We don't have one scheduled but we are going to keep talking, we're going to keep working together, and I wouldn't be surprised if we have another," she said. "We'll see how the meetings go and see what traction we get."