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"First, Do No Harm"

Local Politicians Call Hospital Cuts Into Question County Leaders Urge 'Moratorium' On Layoffs at ENH Newfane Site

By Craig Tretiak

Officials in eastern Niagara County are crying foul. As the result of a 2009 merger between two smaller hospitals, management of the local hospital seems set to close down what was, before they merged, the more financially healthy of the pair.

Amidst swirling allegations of mismanagement, rastern Niagara County residents and politicians turned out in force on Saturday to rally against workforce reductions at the 63-bed Eastern Niagara Hospital, which shed 15 positions at its Newfane site in the first weeks of 2014.

ENH management, which oversees hospital sites in the City of Lockport and the Town of Newfane, has come under heavy fire ever since an early-March meeting between Newfane town officials and hospital brass ended with the disclosure that the hospital did not believe two sites could remain open long-term. That revelation, along with the recent layoffs, convinced Niagara County leaders that ENH officials were planning to shut down the Newfane site.

At a rally at Newfane's Miller Hose Fire Company attend by almost 500 people, elected leaders, including Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, and Town Supervisors Tim Horanburg (R-Newfane), Wright Ellis (R-Cambria), Joseph Jastrzemski (R-Wilson), Ross Annable (R-Hartland), and Daniel Engert (R-Somerst), and County Legislators John Syracuse (R-Newfane), and Rick Updegrove (R-Lockport), turned up the pressure on ENH administration.

"Quality healthcare for our residents should be protected," Maziarz said, offering brief but fiery remarks calling recent ENH decisions into question. "The state and community have made significant investments in having and keeping a hospital in Newfane."

Among hospital management's controversial decisions was ENH Administrator Clare Haar's closure of Newfane's maternity ward months after it was remodeled and renovated thanks in part to a $7 million state HEAL grant.

"She basically put $7 million in the garbage," Horanburg said.

The maternity ward closure came shortly after Lockport Memorial Hospital and Inter-Community Hospital formally merged to form ENH in 2009. Such was the first of many actions that have left Eastern Niagara County leaders questioning the hospital's officially-stated commitment to keeping two sites running.

In a Feb. 3, 2009, media interview, Haar said that "both Lockport and Newfane hospitals will continue to provide hospital services...The merger will continue to respect the traditions of both facilities and the needs of the communities in our service area."

"These decisions don't even make sense," said Newfane Town Councilman Marcus Hall, "unless, of course, Clare Haar didn't mean what she said during the merger."

The merger itself is a sticking point for locals in Eastern Niagara County. While the merger was formalized in 2009, the two hospitals had been operating as if they had already merged since 1999. Prior to that, Lockport Memorial Hospital had nearly become insolvent in the early 1990s before being saved by a $2 million bailout from Newfane's financially solvent Inter-Community Hospital.

For Horanburg, Haar's latest acts border on outright betrayal.

"Newfane made the decision to step up to the plate and take Newfane's financial strength and $2 million into Lockport Hospital to try and save Lockport from a complete financial collapse and possible closure," Horanburg said. "Many residents, including myself, were not sure if this was a good decision."

Syracuse, a chiropractic doctor whose remarks drew heavy applause in the packed fire hall, likened Haar's approach to an amputation performed on a healthy patient.

"When the hospitals merged, Clare Haar, the administrator, promised both hospitals would remain open and functional," Syracuse said. "Ever since, though, she has been taking a scalpel-and now, honestly, a bone saw-to our Newfane hospital..In all my training about the human anatomy, and curing ailments, not once was amputation prescribed as a cure for a healthy patient."

Syracuse said Haar's questionable leadership decisions were jeopardizing healthcare throughout Eastern Niagara County.

Syracuse pointed to a lengthy letter from Horanburg to the Newfane community that laid out the case against ENH leadership. Among Horanburg's complaints were the closure of the Newfane maternity ward just months after it was completely renovated using state dollars and several questionable investments.

Horanburg noted that the hospital had acquired a nursing home facility in Newfane for $750,000 yet was losing $700,000 annually. It is also in the process of spending $3 million in upgrades on a clinic facility in the southern part of the Town of Lockport-far removed from the Newfane residents he represents.

"ENH's problems can be tied directly to policy decisions," Syracuse said. "And those policy decisions can be tied to one single person: Clare Haar."

Syracuse questioned Haar's commitment to quality medicine openly, referencing the body of oaths and rules young doctors learn by heart as they enter the world of medicine.

"Practicing medicine requires...a commitment to that notion, long tied to the Hippocratic Corpus: First, do no harm," Syracuse said. "Of course, Clare Haar is doing harm. She's doing enormous harm to the families of Newfane, to Somerset, to Hartland, to Royalton, and to Lockport. She's jeopardizing the health of children and young moms and senior citizens."

Syracuse passed out copies of a resolution he jointly authored with Niagara County Legislature Majority Leader Rick Updegrove that calls for the hospital administration to place a moratorium on further layoffs and cutbacks until a large-scale community assessment can be performed.

The resolution commits county government agencies to supporting such a study.

The calls for a moratorium seem to be picking up steam as well. Newfane School Board President James Reinke has already committed to passing a similar resolution at his next board meeting.

"We thank you for this, and we're with you," Reinke told Syracuse.

In the meantime, community leaders are bracing for a fight, with many at Saturday's rally calling on the hospital's board of directors and its chairman, Lockport attorney George V.C. Muscato, to fire Haar.

"I hope you'll join us in telling Clare Haar what people who work in hospitals are all supposed to know," Syracuse challenged. "First, do no harm."



Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr. www.niagarafallsreporter.com

Mar 25, 2014