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Bill Could Challenge Closures at Hospitals

August 26, 2018

LEOMINSTER -- While the opponents of the proposed closure of the pediatric unit at UMass Memorial HealthAlliance-Clinton Hospital were probably initially delighted that the Department of Public Health ruled the unit was “neccesary” to maintain community health, the state agency doesn’t have the authority to make the hospital change its decision.

However, legislation filed by former state Sen. Jennifer Flanagan and amended by current state Reps. Stephan Hay and Natalie Higgins, could change that.

It had been the goal of Flanagan, said Higgins, to give DPH “more teeth,” in dealing with these proposed closures of essential hospital services.

Initially filed by Flanagan in 2011, her bill was continually re-filed until she left office in August to become a member of the Cannabis Control Commission.

While Flanagan’s proposal was focused more on extending the hearing and planning processes for planned closures, Higgins’ and Hay’s bill would give the state the ability to withhold money it normally gives to providers designated as community hospitals if a hospital plans to close a service DPH determines to be necessary to maintaining community health.

“If you want to get increased funding for being a community hospital, you have to actually continue to be a community hospital,” said Higgins. “We want them to continue to offer services that we expect from a community hospital.”

The state operates what is known as the Community Hospital Reinvestment Trust Fund, which annually supplies financial aid to care providers throughout Massachusetts. In exchange, hospitals are required to spend the money on an operations audit suggesting how care services could be improved and the balance on carrying out those recommendations.

According to the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services, HealthAlliance received $161,049 in 2017, which was the eighth largest amount awarded to any of the roughly 50 Massachusetts hospitals supported by the trust fund last year.

Though the that amount of money is only a fraction of the operating budget of HealthAlliance, Higgins said she hopes the bill would start a conversation among legislators that could possibly lead to state money from other funds also being withheld whenever an essential service is closed.

“Arguably, this would also address other future investment,” she said. “If we’re going to continue giving them money, they need to keep offering these services, and I don’t think this is going to be our only solution.”

Higgins’ and Hay’s bill was filed as an amendment to the state’s larger health care financing bill, which was not adopted by the end of the most recent legislative session.

Higgins said discussion on the bill will resume once the state’s senators and representatives return to Beacon Hill in January.

Despite that, opponents of the proposed closure of the pediatric unit and DPH’s response considered it a victory, while it really wasn’t.

“From what I saw on social media after the DPH ruling came out, it seemed like folks thought they had stopped the closure when that wasn’t the case,” said Higgins. “I had to work really hard to get the folks in my own networks just to understand that this wasn’t the end of it.”

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