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Year in Health 2015: A review of the top local stories

01/03/2016 12:00 PM |

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The health care industry had some big news stories of its own in 2015. Here’s a look back at some that occurred in the Riverhead area.

• Hospital merger announced

At the end of March, Peconic Bay Medical Center announced that its board of directors had unanimously agreed to enter into an alliance with the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, the 14th largest health care system in the country.

The decision came after two years of negotiations between PBMC and both North Shore-LIJ and Stony Brook Medicine, the other health provider PBMC had considered merging with.

The East End’s other two hospitals, Southampton Hospital and Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport, both decided to merge with Stony Brook, thus ending the East End Health Alliance, which the three East End hospitals had formed in 2008.

PBMC president and chief executive officer Andrew Mitchell said the merger with North Shore-LIJ, which was subsequently approved by state regulators, will give PBMC resources and funding needed to improve medical care in its service area.

“My mantra since 2001 has been, ‘How do we convert this into a regional medical center that has all of the major services that the population that lives here needs?” Mr. Mitchell said in March.

The agreement is expected to be finalized in mid-January.

• PBMC expands west on Route 58

In an effort to relieve emergency room congestion at its main campus on Roanoke Avenue, Peconic Bay Medical Center is building a new hospital annex building at the Gateway Plaza on Route 58, which also is home to Bob’s Discount Furniture and Walmart.

Dubbed an Urgent Care and Diagnostic Imaging center, the 3,500-square-foot building was approved by the Riverhead Town Planning Board in September.

A 1,945-square-foot expansion of the building is also permitted.

The hospital is trying to shift minor injuries and ailments away from the ER at its main campus and into the new building, according to Mr. Mitchell, who said the hospital will need to educate people to go to the annex with minor ailments, since state law prohibits them from not treating patients who go to the emergency room, even if it’s for something minor.

“Clearly, some of the patients in emergency room settings can be treated in non-emergency settings,” Mr. Mitchell said.

Mr. Mitchell said PBMC also is in the process of applying to the state health department to become an area trauma center for the East End, a designation that would mean that many patients who are currently transported to Stony Brook University Hospital from the East End following trauma incidents such as car accidents could eventually come to PBMC for that treatment.

He said space in the emergency department at PBMC’s main campus is being eyed as space for the trauma center. The process of gaining that designation from the state takes about two years, he said.

• Medical marijuana comes to Riverhead

At first, it looked like the Town of Riverhead might get its first medical marijuana growing facility, with one proposed for Baiting Hollow and another for the Enterprise Park at Calverton.

But instead, New York State approved a medical marijuana dispensary for the town.

Neither plan went over well at first.

In late May, Jack and Kurt Van Wetering of Ivy Acres in Baiting Hollow went public with their proposal to grow medical marijuana in a greenhouse off Edwards Avenue. But that plan ran into heavy criticism from neighbors, who said they didn’t oppose medical marijuana, which New York State legalized in 2014, but they did oppose the location, which they said was too near homes.

Riverhead Town officials also wouldn’t support the proposal. The state passed on Ivy Acres’ application anyway, instead approving a plan from Columbia Care that proposed growing marijuana upstate and using the vacant Blockbuster Video site on Route 58 as a dispensary.

That plan was first met with opposition from town officials, who said it was too close to the high school and suggested a one-year moratorium to determine where medical marijuana dispensaries would be best located in town.

But an overwhelming majority of speakers at a public hearing urged the Town Board to ditch the moratorium, with many saying medical marijuana cured painful conditions they or someone they knew had.

Columbia Care agreed to move its dispensary to an East Main Street building that houses Eastern Long Island Hematology/Oncology — which brought more pushback from residents near that location.

But as of now, the facility is scheduled to open in early 2016. It will be the only one in Suffolk County.

• The demise of Health Republic

Health Republic New York was one of 23 Consumer Operated and Oriented Plans — better known as CO-OPs — created through the Affordable Care Act  (aka “Obamacare”), which was enacted to increase the quality and affordability of health insurance.

Health Republic began selling insurance plans in October 2013 and, for a time, was biggest of the nation’s CO-OPs, with more than 200,000 people insured in New York.

But by 2015, things weren’t looking so good for Health Republic. In fact, things couldn’t have gotten much worse than they did.

In late September, the state’s Department of Financial Services announced that Health Republic was not financially stable enough to offer insurance in 2016.

Then less than a month later, the DFS pulled the plug on the insurer even faster than previously expected, shutting the insurance provider down by Nov. 30, rather than the end of the year.

This sent hundreds of individuals and small-business owners scrambling to find a new insurance company for themselves or for their employees.

The DFS said a review of Health Republic’s finances  “found that the company’s financial condition is substantially worse than the company previously reported in its filings.”

Paul Connor, CEO of Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport, said the Affordable Care Act allowed more people to have insurance, but the downside has been that most of the more affordable plans have high deductibles that some people have found hard to afford.

“What that means us is that individuals have a much higher deductible to be able to meet before the real insurance kicks in,” he said in an interview. “What hospitals have been seeing nationwide is that those people with high deductibles, a fairly high percentage of them end up being not being able to pay, and it turns into a bad debt. So that has the hospital industry very concerned.”

Mr. Connor said ELIH has about $380,000 in unpaid bills from Health Republic “that we don’t think we’re ever going to get.”

Statewide, he said, hospitals collectively are owed about $170 million by Health Republic, and individual physicians are owed between $10 million and $30 million.

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Photo: PBMC’s urgent care and diagnostic imaging center in the Walmart Shopping Center was approved in September. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

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