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Tough health choices

Published January 28. 2013 4:00AM

Everyone recognizes the need to bring under control the spiraling rise in the cost of health care, but no one, it seems, wants reforms to detract from their level of care and convenience. That dynamic was on display at a meeting Thursday in Westerly.

Lawrence + Memorial Hospital and local leaders scheduled the meeting as an update on the progress of the acquisition of Westerly Hospital by L+M of New London, but it turned into a protest against plans to end labor and delivery services at the Westerly facility.

Lest anyone forget, Westerly Hospital entered receivership in December 2011 because the way it was being run was financially unsustainable. The court appointed attorney Mark Russo as special master to oversee the sale of the hospital and L+M submitted the winning proposal, committing to maintain most services at the community hospital, but not all services.

One service it plans to eliminate within the next few months is maternity. Dr. Christopher Lehrach, who as chief transformation officer is guiding operations at Westerly during the transition to new ownership, told a skeptical audience that the program is no longer affordable. Westerly Hospital has about 300 births a year and, given that birth rate, paying obstetricians to assure 24-hour service at the small community hospital is not economically practical, he said.

Not surprisingly, families are upset. Moms want to have their babies at their community hospital. L+M faced criticism for placing business interests ahead of health and community interests. But the L+M administration is not doing that. It is placing reality ahead of desires.

Pressures are only going to mount to tighten health care spending. In planning to take a hospital that was in fiscal distress and make it fiscally viable, the new owner has to make tough, calculated decisions. A willingness to incur financial losses for programs that, while nice, are not necessary might seem altruistic, but could lead to Westerly having no community hospital at all.

Approval of the sale by Rhode Island health regulators is still pending and members of the public will get the chance to voice their concerns at the hearings to come. As of now, however, it appears L+M is doing as promised - getting Westerly Hospital back into fiscal shape to assure the community has its hospital for many years to come.

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