Public meeting presents concern from Robinson Memorial employees

Alison Ritchie

A proposal to switch Robinson Memorial Hospital from a county-owned hospital to a private, non-profit is being met with resistance from some of its employees.

The hospital’s board of trustees has submitted its proposal to the Portage County Commissioners, which would have final say in the decision. The three commissioners held a public meeting Thursday at Maplewood Career Center in Ravenna for hospital employees and citizens to ask questions and voice their concerns.

Robinson Memorial Hospital President and CEO Stephen Colecchi explained at the meeting why the board of trustees came to its decision.

“It will be extremely difficult for Robinson Memorial Hospital, as a county-owned hospital to survive long, long, long term,” Colecchi said. “This is not a model that makes sense in the current business environment. In fact most experts will say that unless you’re a billion dollar a year organization, you’re not going to be able to survive under health care reform.”

Robinson Memorial has been a county-owned hospital since 1917. As Portage County’s only hospital, it has about 1,350 employees, making it the county’s largest employer.

Colecchi said that under the proposal, the hospital would be leased to a non-profit corporation comprised of community members and formed by the current hospital’s board of trustees. He said this is not a plan to sell the hospital.

As a county-owned hospital, Robinson Memorial cannot enter into joint ventures with physicians. Colecchi added that the hospital is limited in what financial investments it is allowed to make.

“We have restrictions and elements that put a continual strain when we try to compete with other institutions in the area,” said Gordon Ober, the hospital’s chairman of the board.

Ober said the upcoming changes with health care reform lent weight to the board’s decision.

“The belt is getting tighter and tighter,” Ober said. “We don’t want to find ourselves in the dire situation that some other hospitals have because they have not been able to remain healthy and viable.”

But at the public meeting, the overwhelming concern of the hospital’s employees seemed to be the continued protection of their retirement plans, which are a function of the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System.

Colecchi said if the hospital becomes a non-profit, current employees will have the option of staying with their existing retirement plans or switching over to the new plan the hospital will offer. However, if employees chose to stay with OPERS, they will still have to contribute to social security.

Colecchi said contributing to OPERS costs the hospital $2.8 million more than other pension contributions made by non-profit hospitals of similar size.

The employees argued their pensions were one of the main reasons they chose to work at Robinson Memorial. Mary Christopher has worked at the hospital as a patient care assistant with surgical services for 27 years. She said employees should not have to pay for both retirement and social security.

“I’ve talked to several people there that have less service – 15 years or 12 years,” Christopher said. “And they’re telling me that it’s going to be too financially hard for them to keep in both, so they’re going to have to withdraw from one or the other. That bothers me to know that.”

Other employees at the meeting said they’re concerned that changing to a non-profit model is the first step to sell the hospital. But Colecchi said that’s not the case, and the board of commissioners has always had the option of selling the hospital to a private company.

“That option already exists,” Colecchi said. “We could do it tomorrow. But we don’t want to do that. We don’t think that’s the best model.”

“Our ultimate responsibility should be what makes the most sense for the community, for the patients that we serve, for our employees, to ensure that there is a strong and viable Robinson Memorial Hospital today, a year from now or 20 years from now,” Colecchi said.

Portage County Commissioner Tommie Jo Marsilio said it’s not a decision the commissioners will enter into lightly, and she personally has not made up her mind. But she added she would like to see more diversity on the hospital’s board of trustees to reflect the county.

“We have all kinds of people in this county,” said Marsilio. “The hospital serves all of them, whether they are affluent or not, and we need to have more diverse representation to make decisions that are this important. Until that group changes, I’m flat out not voting for it under any financial prediction.”

The county commissioners have not yet scheduled vote date for the proposal.

Contact Alison Ritchie at [email protected].