Steward Health’s presence in Valley prompts questions


About six years ago when Community Health Systems offered $120 million to purchase then Forum Health, which had been in bankruptcy for 16 months, we posed several questions about the transaction that we believed were in the best interest of Mahoning Valley residents.

The key question grew out of Community Health’s stated commitment to maintain all three Forum Health hospitals: Northside Medical Center in Youngstown, Trumbull Memorial in Warren and Hillside Rehabilitation in Howland.

“What does that mean?” we asked.

The answer, it turns out: a reduction in the workforce via layoffs and retirements.

Thus, last week’s announcement that CHS, the nation’s largest publicly traded hospital company, was selling its holdings in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys brought to mind the question that we posed in 2010: “What does that mean?”

On Friday, leaders from Steward Health Care System of Boston said all the right things when they met with employees of Northside, Trumbull and Hillside.

Indeed, Dr. Michael Callum, executive director of Steward Health, sought to reassure residents of this region that Community Health’s business plan would be shelved.

“We are not here to continue to cut services,” Callum said. “We are here to grow the business. We are here to bring patients back to this hospital.”

Those comments were music to the ears of staffs at the three Valley hospitals and Sharon Regional Health System, but given what’s taken place since 2010 and before, some skepticism is understandable.

We’re still learning about Steward Health, a physician-led, for-profit health services organization and community hospital network. It has 3,000 physicians, 10 hospital campuses and 24 affiliated urgent-care provider locations.

STEWARD’S RECORD OF INVESTMENT

Steward, which is backed by Cerberus Capital Management of New York, acquired Caritas Christi Health System, a Roman Catholic health care system, in 2010, and since then has invested more than $850 million to improve its quality of care and facilities.

That record should provide some reassurance to the people of the Mahoning Valley as they mull the future of health care nationally. President Donald Trump and the Republican- controlled Congress are moving quickly to dismantle the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and replace it with something else. Republicans on Capitol Hill can’t seem to agree on what that something else should be, while the president has said certain aspects of Obamacare should be retained.

It’s this uncertainty that has many Valley residents on edge.

Indeed, Mercy Health, which operates St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital, St. Joseph Warren Hospital and St. Elizabeth Boardman Hospital, seemed to echo the public’s concern in its statement about Steward’s presence in the region.

“From the time that Community Health Systems announced its intention to divest a significant number of its assets across multiple states, Mercy Health’s position has been that the sustainability of services provided by Northside Medical Center, Trumbull Memorial Hospital and Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital, as well as other facilities across the region, was of critical importance to our community.”

In 2010, when Community Health announced it was buying Forum Health’s properties, we raised the issue of indigent or charity care.

It is no secret that a goodly number of area residents do not have health insurance, even with Obamacare. A visit to any hospital emergency room is an eye-opening experience for those fortunate enough to have health care coverage.

Here’s what we said seven years ago about CHS’s plans:

“Finally, it says it will continue participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs and provide a charity-care policy. To what extent will free services be available? Given the large number of people in this area who do not have health-insurance coverage and are too poor to have their own doctors, emergency rooms are used for basic health care. Will CHS continue this practice?”

Now, residents in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys face a renewed sense of uncertainty as another outside entity comes in with the promise of taking care of the region’s health-care needs.

There is reason for guarded optimism, given the positive reviews Steward Health has received in other parts of the country. But a lot more community outreach is needed before the Boston-based company is fully embraced by the Mahoning Valley.

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