One man breaks the silence about Forum’s past and future

The former CEO of Forum Health, Walter “Buzz” Pishkur, estimates that the hospital system is spending $1.5 million to $2 million a month on lawyers and consultants during a bankruptcy reorganization that has been going on for a year.

The unanswered question remains: What will Forum Health’s Mahoning Valley stakeholders get for that money?

It was only a few years ago that Forum’s directors — not all of whom remain on the board today — spent tens of millions of dollars on outside consultants, and what they bought then was a ticket to bankruptcy court.

Mahoning Valley residents can only hope that the board is making a better deal this time.

And the reason that the best they can do is guess is that Forum’s board refuses to discuss what’s happening, even though there is no legal bar against them doing so. The board speaks through paid outside spokesmen, and the message has been, essentially, when we’ve made our decision, the public will be the last to know.

Pishkur, whose short service as Forum’s CEO began when he was himself a member of the board and was essentially drafted to take over operations, ended when creditors forced him out. He’s been quiet for nearly six months since he was deposed, but recently talked to reporters.

One man’s vision

In a story that ran in Sunday’s Vindicator, Pishkur argued that his plan for taking Forum Health from the red into the black and saving all three of the system’s remaining major assets was working. Forum owns Northside Medical Center in Youngstown, Trumbull Memorial Hospital in Warren and Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital in Howland. Pishkur says he resisted efforts by Forum’s creditors to sell Hillside, which he says would have only made it more difficult for the remaining hospitals to survive. The creditors had already succeeded in forcing Forum to divest itself of Beeghly Medical Center in Boardman and the Tod Children’s Hospital, which affected the system’s cash flow and reduced patient referrals to other Forum hospitals. But the sale of Beeghly pleased the creditors, providing millions of dollars for a debt service fund, which stands at $55 million. The fund represents 40 percent of the $139 million Forum owes its secured lenders, primarily large national banks.

The banks, Pishkur maintains, are far more interested in getting 100 percent of their investment back than they are at seeing Forum continue to serve the Mahoning Valley. That, he says, is why his reorganization plan, which had a goal of cutting costs and increasing admissions to make all three hospitals profitable, was short-circuited.

Hollow assurances

A spokesman for the creditors disagrees, offering assurances that the creditors have been more than cooperative.

But spokesmen for out-of-town creditors or for the local board of directors speaking in generalities don’t trump Pishkur’s rather convincing narrative.

Forum Health is an institution built by the community over a period of more than a century. It has collected hundreds of millions of dollars in fees and been the recipient of tens of millions of dollars in contributions from benefactors, large and small. Millions of those charitable contributions have been pledged as collateral to Forum’s creditors.

The only one talking these days is Pishkur, and he’s saying the future of Forum’s assets, especially Northside Medical Center, and Forum’s ability to continue providing a high level of service in the area are in jeopardy. His view gives people reason for concern, and his story is all anyone has to go on, unless and until the board breaks its silence.

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