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Frick Hospital to shut down obstetrics unit

| Thursday, July 17, 2003

Nurses at Frick Hospital in Mount Pleasant say they were informed that the obstetrics unit will close by Oct. 1.

They also said a seven-bed intensive care unit and a 36-patient medical-surgical floor also have been closed.

The news comes about two weeks after David Gallatin, acting chief executive officer of the Westmoreland Health System, said the hospital may discontinue in-patient services in the future.

Registered nurse Geri Karinchak, of Scottdale, said 20 nurses who work in obstetrics learned during a staff meeting earlier this month that the unit will close this fall. Karinchak, who has worked at Frick for more than eight years, said morale has plummeted.

"In our department, everybody was walking around crying," Karinchak said. "We have people working there for 15, 20 and 30 years."

Lori Richter, nurse-manager of the obstetrics unit, attended meetings with Westmoreland administrators and was surprised by the different versions of plans for Frick.

On July 7, she attended a meeting hosted by Dr. Donald Kettering, chief of the Frick medical staff, and was told "we were going very well or breaking even."

"I went away from the meeting feeling confident our department would be around for awhile," Richter said.

At another meeting later that day, she was informed by Sam Ranieri, chief operating officer, that the trustees would decide in August when the unit would close.

"I was just in a meeting a few hours earlier and everything seemed fine," she added.

Nancy Johnson has worked as a registered nurse at Frick for 22 years, including 17 in obstetrics. She said, "Everybody looks like somebody died. People look at you and feel bad. I worked in the same place for 22 years and thought I would retire here."

Suellen Lichtenfels, of Hidden Valley, said nurses have been working under a closing threat for several years because of the hospital's financial woes. Nurses volunteered to work reduced hours so the financially troubled hospital could remain viable.

"If you add up the number of hours, it adds up to thousands, thousands and thousands of dollars," said the 17-year veteran. "They don't care about that. They're leaving the community in the lurch."

Mount Pleasant Mayor Gerald Lucia said Frick employees told him about the plans. He has yet to hear anything directly from Westmoreland Health System officials.

"Nothing comes to us directly," Lucia said. "Nothing has come across my desk. It's disappointing to hear from workers and not from administrators. We'll talk with them."

"We were told how financially strapped the hospital is," Karinchak said. "We were told one day that our department was the only one making money, and the next day we were told we were closing."

Last week, Gallatin said the health system ended the past fiscal year with an $8.5 million operating loss, including a $4 million operating loss at Frick. The hospital also is in technical default on $10.5 million in tax-free bonds sold to refinance debt and undertake some improvements in 1997.

Gallatin said Frick would not close. However, he warned that the 100-year-old community hospital could become an outpatient clinic in the future if admissions, which decreased by 200 in 2002 from the previous year, don't increase. Frick just dedicated a $3.6 million outpatient clinic earlier this month.

"It's so disheartening," Lichtenfels said. "We gave our all to keep our department open, and now we find out this is going to happen."

The nurses said Frick has only two obstetricians. One of them is leaving on Oct. 1, and the department cannot function with one physician, they were told. They said attempts to persuade physicians at Westmoreland Regional Hospital to work at Frick were unsuccessful because the doctors said they were too busy.

In a statement, Gallatin said no decision has been made to close the obstetrics unit until the health system's board of trustees reviews the operation at its next meeting. He said routine office visits and testing for expectant mothers will "continue uninterrupted."

Gallatin said efforts to recruit another physician to replace the one leaving "have been in vain."

"The demonstrated inability to attract new physicians to this specialty will be a key factor in the decision-making process," he said. "If a decision is made to consolidate the obstetric services between Frick and Westmoreland Regional hospitals, women in the Mount Pleasant area may continue local office visits with their obstetrician and diagnostic testing at Frick Hospital, but deliver at Westmoreland Regional."

Johnson said about 400 babies are delivered annually at Frick, and births have increased since 2001. She said many of the hospital's patients live in the southern end of Westmoreland County and nearby Fayette County.

"Our patients come from Connellsville, Uniontown, Dunbar, the mountains over near Indian Head. Many patients are low-income and have no cars or public transportation. That means less prenatal care because they won't be making visits here," Johnson said.

Richter said the word of the unit's closing already has spread among patients.

"I've had patients crying to me asking, 'Where will I go• I don't want to go to Westmoreland. I want to deliver at Frick.'"

"We were told we would be solvent at least until next July," Lichtenfels said. "Most people thought we had at least another year. I, myself, am tired of wondering if we have jobs or not. You hate to be foolishly loyal to a place you know may close."

Karinchak said nurses, who are not unionized, plan to stage an informational picket line at Frick next week to inform the community of the changes.

"Tuesday night, I was so sad to pull into the parking lot and not know how many days I had left," Lichtenfels said.

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