Mayor Grebien wants special master to take over all of Care New England

Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket.

PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) – Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien on Thursday asked Gov. Gina Raimondo to seek appointment of a special master to take over the entire Care New England hospital system, two days after executives there announced they plan to close Memorial Hospital in his city.

A special master is a court-appointed official given broad powers to accomplish a specific task. In a letter to Raimondo, Grebien suggested such an individual in this case “would have the authority to work with all parties, make recommendations, and oversee any bidding or other processes.”

Grebien’s suggestion would effectively put an outside individual in charge of Rhode Island’s No. 2 hospital system, which has thousands of employees at facilities including Women & Infants, Memorial and Kent, and more than $1 billion in annual revenue. A special master was previously appointed when Landmark Medical Center in Woonsocket and Westerly Hospital ran into difficulties.

Jim Beardsworth, a spokesman for Care New England, quickly rejected the idea.

“The state of Rhode Island already has a clearly defined and rigorous process established with regard to Care New England’s announced plans for Memorial Hospital,” he said in an email. “As we move forward with our immediate planning process and regulatory filing … we will strictly adhere to the stringent requirements while providing high quality patient care and ensuring continued access for the community.”

Care New England has been facing increasing financial challenges in recent years, partly because of its 2013 acquisition of Memorial, which has been losing tens of millions of dollars a year. Earlier this year the company struck twin deals to spin off Memorial to Prime Healthcare and sell the rest of its facilities to Partners HealthCare, Massachusetts’ largest hospital group. But negotiations with Prime collapsed this month, and the company’s board voted Monday to close Memorial.

Memorial’s future will soon be in the hands of the Raimondo administration. R.I. Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott will have to approve Care New England’s request to close the facility once the company formally files notice with her agency.

Grebien argued a special master is needed to stabilize Care New England as a whole. “This process was utilized successfully in the special masterships of Landmark Medical Center and Westerly Hospital,” he wrote. “We believe that it could be effected immediately in order to bring calm, order and transparency to the current crisis.”

The mayor went on to say that “in both of these cases, the court made clear that all dynamics comprising the public interest were considered before the court made the ultimate decision on each facility’s future. If the Department [of Health] has used another successful model to oversee a transaction of this kind that includes all parties in the process, I am open to discussing that further.”

Joseph Wendelken, a spokesman for the department, said officials there were reviewing the mayor’s proposal.

“The Rhode Island Department of Health has yet to receive any application from Care New England for units at Memorial Hospital,” he said. “However, as we said yesterday, our number one priority during any major health facility transition is the health and safety of patients and the community.”

Beardsworth said Care New England officials plan to meet “with the mayor and other local leaders in the coming days to further outline our next steps.”

State Sen. Elizabeth Crowley, D-Central Falls, has also suggested a special master should be appointed before Memorial is allowed to close. Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, a former Cumberland mayor, earlier this week argued all of Care New England’s plans should be reexamined in light of the Memorial announcement.

Care New England officials have insisted there are no other options for Memorial. Incoming CEO James Fanale told Eyewitness News on Tuesday that Prime was the only company that put in a formal bid for the Pawtucket hospital when it was put on the market earlier this year.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook