Decision on future of Forum delayed

By William K. Alcorn

If the health system is sold, a covenant will be needed to protect the community, Mayor Williams said.

YOUNGSTOWN — The decision on whether to sell Forum Health or submit a plan for reorganization to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, which was due Monday, has again been delayed.

Forum spokesman Vince Bevacqua said Thursday that after detailed discussions with its lenders and creditors, an agreement was reached to suspend the Monday deadline.

No new deadline has been set, he added.

Sources with knowledge of the situation, however, say the new target date is likely to be in early March.

Extending the decision date will require an extension of an agreement for Forum to use cash collateral to operate. A motion seeking renewal of the agreement, which provides for regular progress reports to lenders and creditors, is scheduled to be submitted to the bankruptcy court Jan. 14, Bevacqua said.

“While good progress continues to be made in our evaluation of bids and concurrent preparation of a plan of reorganization, we have determined that the process is simply too dynamic to set arbitrary deadlines for submission,” Charles Neumann, interim CEO of Forum Health, said in a news release Thursday.

“Our first priority is maintaining access to high quality health care services for residents of the Mahoning Valley, and we do not want anything to distract our employees from focusing on that primary goal,” he said.

Another reason to suspend deadlines in this process is that Forum Health said it continues to have productive talks with the unions representing its employees, as well as close and cooperative dialogue with its lenders.

“Make no mistake. Everyone in this process understands the urgency to reach a decision,” Neumann’s statement says. “We are all keenly focused on creating the best possible outcome for our employees and the community for the long term.

“As long as those productive discussions and cooperative approach continue, we are confident we can reach a consensus and begin the next phase of this process soon,” he said.

The eventual decision by the Forum Board of Trustees will be publicly disclosed when submitted to the Bankruptcy Court for review and approval, Bevacqua said.

This is not the first time Forum, which filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code on March 16, 2009, has delayed making a decision on the health system’s future.

Forum Health received bids for its facilities Nov. 13, and at that point set a target decision date of Nov. 30. That date was eventually pushed back to Monday.

If the date is pushed back, maybe it’s a good thing, said Eric Williams, president of Ohio Nurses Association’s Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association, which represents between 400 and 500 nurses at Northside Medical Center.

“Maybe the Forum Board of Trustees is taking the extra time to make the best-informed decision it can. It must be something, otherwise why would creditors agree to extension?” he said.

Local elected officials have said they want to see the system emerge from bankruptcy intact, whether it continues to operate as is or is sold.

Forum, which has about 4,000 employees, owns Northside in Youngstown, Trumbull Memorial Hospital in Warren, and Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital in Howland.

Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams said he is concerned that an outside investor might come in and break up the system, something he said he opposes.

State Rep. Robert Hagan of Youngstown, D-60th, has said the community needs the 1,400 jobs provided by Northside and the city needs the $1.5 million it generates in income tax revenue each year.

Williams said if there is a sale, a covenant would be needed to protect the community’s access to care by keeping Northside operating and with minimal job lossses.

“For-profit organizations have a track record of purchasing health-care facilities in urban centers and stripping them and closing them,” the mayor said.

The mayor said it is his understanding that the terms of a sale would be negotiated by Forum’s trustees.

The community, however, has invested in and contributed to Forum Health and Northside, he added.

“I understand that the creditors want their money, but there is also a moral obligation to the community,” he added.

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