A coalition of labor unions, consumer organizations and healthcare interest groups has risen up in Rhode Island to oppose the sale of not-for-profit Roger Williams Medical Center to Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp.
And the coalition, which calls itself Not for Profit!, has attracted the backing of a high-profile freshman congressman from the medical center's service area.
Leaders of the coalition said the entry of Nashville, Tenn.-based Columbia into the state's healthcare environment would lead to job losses for healthcare workers, reduced business for local healthcare suppliers, and incentives to steer patients to or from the hospital depending on their ability to pay.
Columbia signed a letter of intent in June to pay $50 million for a 150-bed hospital and other facilities operated by the Providence-based medical center, including developing continuum-of-care sites for senior citizens.
Mike Phelan, organizing director for District 1199 of the New England Health Care Employees Union and spokesman for the coalition, called Columbia a "for-profit, make-a-buck, Wal-Mart of healthcare" with an incentive to put money into shareholders' hands instead of back into the community and its needy people.
That theme was echoed at a news conference last week outside Roger Williams organized by U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.), who said he was there "out of a deep concern about a threat that lies on the horizon-a threat that will change the way thousands of Rhode Islanders receive their healthcare."
Kennedy said Columbia "is the fastest-growing, most aggressive and, when it comes to profit, the most single-minded of all the for-profit healthcare companies in this country."
He urged Gov. Lincoln Almond, the state health department and the state attorney general's office "to ask tough questions and demand ironclad commitment from Columbia that it will not act here as it has in other states. If Columbia will not promise to put care first, we should not let it in."
According to a position statement issued by the coalition, "Columbia/HCA has repeatedly slashed services and eliminated jobs in markets it dominates," while "robbing the local economy of its business with hospitals" by contracting for supplies and services on a national scale.
Representatives of the medical center said they've taken steps to assure that current levels of uncompensated care will be maintained as part of the formal agreement with Columbia. In 1995, the medical center's charity care and uncollectible debts totaled $5.2 million on operating revenues of $100 million.
And as for commitment to jobs, the medical center is trying to fill 60 vacant positions, mostly registered nurses and other technical employees, said Fran Driscoll, senior vice president for external affairs, adding that the medical center has 42 more employees than last year.
As part of its conversion of Roger Williams to a for-profit hospital, Columbia will set up a charitable foundation. The funding amount hasn't been established, she said.
Columbia also has pledged $8 million in capital improvements, she added.
Kennedy said his problem was with Columbia itself "and what might happen to this fine facility several years down the road.
"This is my neighborhood, and I represented Roger Williams as a state representative for six years," he said. "I don't believe that Roger Williams has anything but the best intentions in making this business deal."
Eve Hutcherson, a spokeswoman for Columbia, said the company had received no indication of Kennedy's opposition prior to his statement. "We would welcome the opportunity to sit down with him and have some meaningful discussions, and I hope we'll have the opportunity to do so," Hutcherson said.
Driscoll said the decisions in regard to Columbia were made with broad community interests in mind. "We have a board of trustees that represents the community," she said, contrasting that with the coalition's makeup, which she said "represents only a segment of that community."
In addition to the healthcare workers union, which is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, the coalition includes three other unions representing nurses, health professionals, social workers, hotel and restaurant employees; consumer and workers' groups such as Rhode Island Jobs With Justice; and the Rhode Island Communist Party and the International Socialist Organization.
"I'm not sure how much the Rhode Island Communist Party knows about healthcare," Hutcherson said.