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By Frank Parlato Jr.

A fascinating result of our recent coverage of Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center is the startling number of readers who expressed surprise that the sole hospital in Niagara Falls is not funded by taxpayers.

This comment has replaced to some degree a previously oft-repeated comment made by people who perhaps don't understand the facts and who invariably quip that "the hospital always has its hand out."

It is no secret, of course, that money is a problem at Memorial. The hospital lost more than $20 million between 1998 and 2002. Things got substantially better after the board of directors hired local man Joseph Ruffolo as president. After his hiring in November 2002, Memorial managed to break even. Just barely.

Some people don't realize this hospital isn't owned by local lawyer James Roscetti, who is chairman of the board, nor by board members like Don King, Cynthia Bianco, Margaret Toohey and Charles Rader.

The hospital is owned by the residents of Niagara Falls and is a not-for-profit 501C3 corporation. Niagara Falls Memorial is much like what Erie County Medical Center is -- without a county subsidy, without a city subsidy, without a state subsidy.

Memorial survives through the payments of the patients it serves. These patients are approximately 41 percent Medicare, 35 percent Medicaid and 8 percent self-pay.

Memorial provides around $7 million of uncompensated hospital care annually on an $85 million budget. Nine cents of every dollar is written off to charity care.

While some hospitals turn patients away, at Memorial there is no deviation in the standard of care given, whether you can afford to pay or not. Memorial has its hand out -- giving.

Twenty percent of the people in this area are at or below poverty guidelines. Roughly half are on some form of government assistance. Niagara Falls would be a challenge for the World Health Organization, with some of the highest health indicators in terms of mortality, cardiac and stroke, renal failure, diabetes, behavioral health, teenage pregnancy and inadequate prenatal care. Think about the enormous resources that the people here need because of their poor health indicators and the finite number of resources in this community.

Most improvements to the hospital are funded by grants from sources like the New York State Department of Health or private foundations like the O'Shea Foundation, Cummings Foundation, Wendt Foundation, Greg Lewis Foundation, from city grants, or grants from Community Development, and by local fundraising.

Grants helped build the Heart Center, Endocrinology/Diabetes Center, the new Behavioral Health facility, and provided new cardiac PET technology -- a non-invasive alternative to an angiogram, done through imaging of the heart.

Memorial has kept up with the best technology and care-giving practices. They just invested half a million dollars in a new Pharmacy Medication Administration System to eliminate medication errors, the No. 1 killer in hospitals.

Memorial is a state-designated Stroke Center and the only Endocrinology/Diabetes Center in the area. Their 24-station outpatient dialysis unit serves approximately 100 patients a week.They also have a Sports Medicine Program. The hospital's state-of-the-art emergency facility is one of the busiest in Western New York, attracting 30,000 visits per year.

Meanwhile, New York state has consistently changed payment rates to hospitals. This affects Memorial disproportionately.

Carping critics say, if Memorial can't get along without handouts, maybe Memorial should close.

Then where would the 30,000 visitors to the ER go? It is unlikely the nearest hospital, Mount St. Mary's in Lewiston, could absorb the volume. Wait times would be in days, not hours.

People ask why this city should provide a grant for $250,000 to improve parking facilities at the hospital for the elderly and handicapped, but they applaud the mayor giving $250,000 last year to the Hard Rock Cafe for a series of outdoor concerts.

The hospital employs more than 1,100 workers, making it the third-largest employer in the region. The average tenure for nurses here is between 15 years and 20 years. Those nurses could make make $4 more per hour in Buffalo.

Memorial does all this in one of the poorest cities in the country -- without costing taxpayers. Hospitals in upscale communities with affluent patients may be profitable.

That is not Memorial.

The beggars.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Feb. 1, 2011