ELMIRA — Although they failed to legally block a state mandate that they discuss affiliation with Arnot Ogden Medical Center, officials at St. Joseph’s Hospital say they are continuing to pursue alignment with Guthrie Healthcare System of Sayre, Pa.
In a ruling issued Jan. 4, State Supreme Court Judge Robert Mulvey dismissed St. Joseph’s lawsuit to block an edict from the state Commission on Health Care Facilities in the 21st Century that the hospital explore a merger or similar arrangement with Arnot Ogden. During a Dec. 19 hearing before Mulvey in Chemung County Court, St. Joseph’s had argued that the commission had violated the state’s Open Meetings Law by meeting privately to reach its November recommendation.
Mulvey’s ruling paved the way for the state health commissioner to enact the recommendation from the state panel, also known as the Berger Commission. All of its recommendations automatically became law Jan. 1 because the state Legislature failed to reject them by Dec. 31.
The Berger Commission seeks to close nine hospitals and to eliminate several thousand hospital beds and nursing-home beds statewide.
In his ruling, Mulvey said the state’s recommendation “did not have any status or effect as a matter of law when it was issued, and therefore could not have affected any rights of the petitioner (St. Joseph’s) nor cause any injury in fact.” He added that the state is entitled to uphold its recommendation.
The Berger Commission recommended that St. Joseph’s suspend plans with Guthrie — which had been announced in mid-November, prior to release of the commission report — until after it has conducted discussions in good faith with Arnot Ogden. If either St. Joseph’s or Arnot Ogden fail to enter these discussions, the commission calls for one hospital to close and the other to expand to accommodate patient volume from the closed facility.
“St. Joseph’s pursuit of a relationship with the Guthrie Health System will not serve the best interests of the Elmira community,” the report stated.
St. Joseph’s and Arnot Ogden have discussed affiliation in the past, but were unable to reach an agreement.
Sister of St. Joseph Marie Castagnaro, St. Joseph’s president and CEO, said she was disappointed that Mulvey ruled he was not obligated to address the lawsuit’s merits. She maintained that St. Joseph’s and Guthrie have held very public meetings, whereas the Berger Commission has been “transacting its business, conducting its deliberations and making its recommendations regarding St. Joseph’s in nonpublic, closed-door sessions.”
Sister Castagnaro added that she would consult with St. Joseph’s attorneys to determine what other avenues the hospital might next pursue.
“There are a few options,” she told the Courier, noting, for instance, the possibility of retrying its case against the state.
Sister Castagnaro also expressed optimism that it is still possible to win state approval for an alignment with Guthrie. She noted that Mulvey did not indicate that St. Joseph’s should discontinue talks with Guthrie.
“The petitioner has continued to pursue affiliation with another facility. It has executed a letter of intent with that facility and is currently in the process of drafting a definitive agreement. There has been no showing that the respondent’s acts or omissions have impaired that process in any way or caused any other prejudice to the petitioner,” Mulvey wrote.
Don Hartman, chairman of St. Joseph’s board of directors, said the hospital is hoping for a more explicit go-ahead from Mulvey regarding talks with Guthrie.
“We’d like something in writing, saying we could continue on,” Hartman said.
Under the agreement with Guthrie, St. Joseph’s would retain its Catholic identity while receiving a commitment of $54 million in funds from Guthrie.
Denis Sweeney, spokesman for St. Joseph’s, said Jan. 12 that the hospital had not yet received any word from the state health commissioner’s office about beginning the mandated talks with Arnot Ogden.