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By Richard Asinof
WOONSOCKET – For more than two hours, a parade of about 25 citizens testified about the economic importance of preserving Landmark Medical Center and supporting the purchase of the nonprofit community hospital by Steward Health Care, a for-profit hospital system based in Boston.
The hearing, held in the afternoon on April 9 at Woonsocket City Hall, was the first of two scheduled by the R.I. Department of Health and the R.I. Attorney General’s office, in order to provide an opportunity for the voices of local residents to be heard. The second hearing, held that evening, attracted a similar number of speakers. In total, only one person testified against Steward’s purchase of Landmark, Dr. Howard E. Schulman, an internist who practices in Warwick.
“It was wonderful to hear everybody, and to see everybody here. This is what democracy looks like, it’s a great thing,” said Dr. Michael Fine, director of the R.I. Department of Health, after the afternoon hearing. The agency, along with the R.I. attorney general’s office, is currently reviewing Steward’s application to purchase Landmark. “As far as I know, we are on target [to finish the review on schedule], but I keep my hands off the process,” he said. “The process had its own integrity.”
Firefighters, emergency first responders, nurses, business owners, doctors, cancer survivors, oncology program managers, heart attack survivors, physical therapists, union presidents, senior agency executive directors and the president of the local chamber of commerce all presented emotional testimony on the importance of preserving Landmark as a community hospital – and as the second-largest employer in financially troubled Woonsocket.
They were joined by numerous elected officials: U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline, Woonsocket Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, Cumberland Mayor Dan McKee, and state Sen. Roger Picard. Those testifying repeated similar arguments, again and again: the purchase would preserve jobs, it would infuse the city with a promised $30 million capital investment by Steward, and it would boost the city’s tax revenues. And, without the approval of Steward’s purchase, Landmark would be forced to close, putting the health of the city’s residents at great risk.
Sister Marie Pullo, Steward’s senior vice president for Mission, testified at length, far beyond the suggested three minutes in length, about the hospital’s delivery of high quality health care “in the communities where our patients live.”
The week of the hearings, Steward had launched a series of TV and print ads in the local Rhode Island market, reinforcing the word “believe” in a series of personal testimonies about the exceptional health care provided by the for-profit 10-hospital system.
After the hearing, Amy Kempe, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island attorney general’s office, and Bill Fischer, spokesman for Landmark’s court-appointed special master, Jonathan N. Savage, compared notes regarding the most accurate number to use for jobs at Landmark and its sister facility. “We’ve been using 1,100,” said Fischer, who has served in his capacity for almost four years, ever since the community hospital first entered into receivership in June of 2008. “Eleven hundred and one,” Kempe said, with a laugh, directing her response at Fischer.