Battle over Massena Memorial continues

Demonstrators outside Messina Town Hall on December 16.

Against professional advice and the interests of NYSNA nurses and others who work in the hospital, the Massena Town Council voted on December 16 to allow Massena Memorial Hospital (MMH) to move forward with a plan to go private and convert the municipal facility to an independent non-profit. The nurses have vowed to continue to fight the conversion.

The Town of Massena has controlled the 50-bed hospital located in St. Lawrence County for more than 70 years. NYSNA represents RNs at MMH, while service, maintenance, clerical and some professional titles are members of the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA).

The vote comes after two years in which a turnaround was accomplished with the help of the unions: a break-even year in 2014 and operating gains for most of 2015. A high priority for NYSNA was maintaining the level of contribution to the state pension system. “Some employees have been in the system for more than 20 years and would lose their state pension benefits if the hospital becomes a nonprofit facility,” said Linda Smith, RN.

The vote came despite opposition by many in attendance at the packed meeting and in the aftermath of an earlier rally of hospital employees and supporters in front of the town hall.

Questionable motives

The December 16 vote was a sour note given the facility’s stronger fiscal footing and the efforts made to achieve the turnaround. Moreover, with its vote the Massena Council went against the advice of Newpoint Health Advisors, a consultant it had hired to recommend a course of action. In a 2015 report Newpoint advised the Council against selling or privatizing.

Not a done deal

Prior to the vote, NYS Assemblywoman Addie Russell urged the council to pursue converting to a public benefit corporation, an option also put forward by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. As a public benefit corporation hospital employees, including NYSNA members, would keep their state pensions. “Should MMH proceed with privatization, it would face a mass exodus of qualified staff who would leave for other jobs where they could retain their state benefits,” cautioned Ms. Russell.

Despite the Council’s approval, the conversion is not a done deal. Before the privatization can proceed, MMH must attain Certificate of Need approval. There is, as well, language in the December 16 resolution that allows MMH to pursue privatization but does not require that it shed its municipal status, leaving a window open to keep the hospital in the public domain.

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