The path to converting Massena Memorial Hospital from a public to a private facility has endured its shares of bumps.

Discussions about transforming the hospital into a nonprofit entity began in 2013. And this is essential for the financial stability of both the health care center and the town of Massena.

The state provided funding so the hospital could meet its pension obligations: $4.25 million in 2014 and $3.2 million in 2015. The hospital received a $5.8 million grant from the state Department of Health in 2016 to retire debt.

But the gravy train ended here. State officials said no more funds would be provided to cover pension payments, and the Department of Health mandated the hospital to turn into a private organization. Receiving this grant also required Massena Memorial to affiliate with another health care system.

Hospital employees objected to the idea of adopting a nonprofit status. Civil Service Employees Association representatives said they were “outraged” when hospital officials proposed this plan to the Town Council in 2015.

For the employees, this became an effort to preserve their government-run benefits. The problem with this approach, however, is that it skews the priority of operating a medical center. Massena Memorial exists to provide the best health care services possible to its patients — not to guarantee awesome pension plans to employees.

It’s been apparent for the past few years that the hospital cannot sustain itself financially, and the town would be on the hook for its debts. Becoming a nonprofit facility will allow it to seek sources of revenue unavailable to it as a public entity.

The employees weren’t the only ones to oppose this move. Former state Assemblywoman Addie J. Jenne, D-Theresa, recommended that Massena Memorial become a public benefit corporation rather than be privately owned. But hospital officials and members of the Town Council determined this simply wasn’t feasible.

Steven D. O’Shaughnessy also has worsened the situation. When he first joined the Town Council in 2016, he opposed privatization.

After becoming town supervisor last year, he began coercing compliance to his will. He orchestrated the resignation of then-hospital Chief Executive Officer Robert G. Wolleben.

He then hired interim CEO Ann Gilpin to serve a two-month tenure without any input from the hospital’s Board of Managers — for $40,000 per month. But this part of the deal had to be rescinded because municipal law requires the hospital board to compensate its CEO rather than the town.

Mr. O’Shaughnessy also started replacing members of the hospital’s Board of Managers who dared to think for themselves. The board initially announced its intention to affiliate with Crouse Hospital and Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center/North Star Health Alliance. But the town supervisor unilaterally decided this wasn’t a good choice, so he stacked the deck with board members who would carry out his wishes.

Last month, the Board of Managers and Town Council finally approved a deal for the hospital to become part of St. Lawrence Health System — which is absorbing all its debts. The state Dormitory Authority loaned $2.8 million to St. Lawrence Health System to pay some short-term expenditures for Massena Memorial.

The hospital received a $20 million grant from the Statewide Health Care Facility Transformation Program, which requires it to become a nonprofit organization. Once this occurs, Massena Memorial will use these funds to repay the loan from the Dormitory Authority.

It’s good that Massena Memorial Hospital has overcome unfortunate setbacks and taken essential steps to privatize. This will help officials improve the facility’s finances and focus on enhancing its value to the community.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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