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Pawtucket mayor aims to keep some health services at Memorial Hospital

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PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) – Mayor Donald Grebien is hoping to keep some health care services operating at Memorial Hospital, one day after its owner Care New England announced it would close.

“It’s going to change,” Grebien said in an interview with Eyewitness News on Wednesday. “I don’t know what that change is.”

Grebien said he planned to meet with Care New England officials later in the week, and was also in discussions with Attorney General Peter Kilmartin about how to proceed.

“I need to make sure I’m protecting the residents of Pawtucket,” Grebien said. “We’re trying to come up with a strategy that protects the jobs, the hospital and the services, naturally, that we have over there.”

It’s so far unclear how that plan will take shape after Care New England officials said they intend to close the hospital following the collapse of a plan to sell the facility to Prime Healthcare. While Memorial’s financial problems go back years, even before Care New England took over in 2013, Grebien argues the owners did not invest enough in the hospital to keep it running.

“The assets have been sucked so much out of that facility,” Grebien said.

Care New England officials dispute that, saying the company invested millions in the hospital when they took over. Incoming CEO James Fanale said Tuesday there didn’t appear to be any other interested buyers when the hospital was put on the market earlier this year.

“It seems to me there is no other solution,” Fanale said, adding that there were currently only 15 to 20 inpatients at the hospital each day. He did say part of the facility’s nearly 600,000-square-foot Pawtucket campus could potentially turn into a primary care or specialty medical facility.

Boston-based Partners health care is currently in talks to take over the rest of the Care New England hospital system, which also includes Women & Infants and Kent, but the Massachusetts company does not want to take on Memorial. Fanale said resolving Memorial’s situation is a requirement before Partners takes over.

Grebien suggested he would consider taking legal action to keep some of Memorial’s assets in Pawtucket, including trying to get a so-called special master to look into the hospital’s finances. A special master was also used roughly a decade ago in the case of Woonsocket’s Landmark Medical Center, which was placed into receivership and later bought by Prime.

“Somebody needs to go in there and take an honest look at these books,” Grebien said. He said he didn’t know if another owner would be interested in taking over the facility.

Care New England has yet to formally submit paperwork to request the closure, according to Department of Health spokesman Joseph Wendelken. The department needs to approve the closure.

“Our focus now is on the people there, the residents there and making sure that everyone has access to care going forward,” Wendelken said, adding that news of the closure was “discouraging.”

He said Care New England would need to submit a plan laying out how community members will continue to have access to health care, including emergency services, and how patients and employees will be transitioned.

The Department of Health could decline to sign off on the plan if it doesn’t meet the health and safety needs of the local community, Wendelken said.

“We could go round and round to make sure that, as I said, the health and safety of people in the community is not compromised,” he said.

A Care New England spokesman said Wednesday the paperwork for Memorial’s closure would be filed with the Department of Health “as soon as possible.”

Outside the hospital Wednesday, Dr. Anais Ovalle sat holding a sign: “Keep jobs and healthcare in Pawtucket.”

She said she works as an internal medicine resident at the hospital, and is worried about Pawtucket losing its community hospital. She said she’s concerned her patients won’t know where to go for care. Her own future is also uncertain, as Care New England has said they hope to transition some of the hospital’s nearly 700 employees to other hospitals but has not said how many might be laid off.

“I love this hospital,” she said. “I love this community and I’ll do anything for them.”

Ted Nesi contributed to this report.