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Hospital Closure Before COVID May Have Been A Mixed Blessing

A last-gasp effort to save Lakeshore Hospital was held in January. Six weeks later, COVID put the clamps on everything. P-J photo

Around one year ago today, the wheels were set in motion. Board members and the administration of the Brooks-TLC Hospital System Inc. announced the Lakeshore Hospital campus in Irving would be closing within the coming months.

Unexpectedly, the quick, closed-door decision was met with anger, sadness and plenty of questions from the community. “Despite efforts to reduce expenses and maintain hospital services, the losses being incurred at the TLC campus continue to rise,” said Christopher Lanski, chair of the Brooks-TLC Hospital System Board of Directors on Dec. 3. “Simply put, patient volume is too low to maintain services and cover the cost of operating the campus.”

Brooks-TLC’s financial struggles were well documented by this newspaper. In 2019 alone, both institutions lost a combined $20 million.

Maybe that’s why the state’s 2006 Berger Commission recommendations called on the facility to close or have Brooks and Lakeshore work closer together. But that marriage attempt appeared doomed from the beginning.

In 2008, the newly formed Lake Erie Regional Health System for the two hospitals did not do enough to reduce costs. While maintaining the only full-time chief executive officer this board ever hired, there were two incompatible computer systems at both locations — and similar administrative posts in both Dunkirk and Irving. Positions were added, not consolidated.

While the financial picture worsened, that CEO was terminated in 2013 and then paid an additional two years in a separation agreement that totaled more than $200,000. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center was contracted to righten the sinking ships in the spring of that year. It was a hard-nosed approach, but left many in the community wondering what exactly the health-care future was for the two facilities. UPMC has a reputation for watching the bottom line.

Hundreds of jobs were shed at both sites and the Lakeshore facility was targeted for closure in January 2014. Local and state officials, however, rallied to keep the money-losing hospital running until Feb. 2 — the day it officially closed.

No one on that evening could have seen what was coming in the next six weeks. COVID-19 not only shutdown global economies, it put already struggling health-care facilities in a even worse predicament.

Knowing how poor the financials were for Brooks-TLC in 2019, there is no way both locations could have survived this. With the clamps on outpatient surgeries and the other inpatient health-care revenue generators until late spring, the devastation would have been more than insurmountable.

New York state, which has funded most of the deficits by Brooks-TLC, is bleeding cash. State officials figure the economic slowdown will leave a $16 billion deficit for next year. Bailing out failing small hospitals — or building new ones such as the one proposed for Fredonia– cannot be a priority in this volatile environment.

Through the pandemic, Brooks-TLC in Dunkirk has remained open and shown a great deal of leadership during the crisis. Obviously, its cash situation is no better — and could be much worse — but reducing operations to one facility is a major expense reduction.

That being said, what was once a vital and energy-filled campus is one depressing site. A ride on Routes 5 and 20 between Silver Creek and the Seneca Nation of Indians territory is disheartening due to the empty buildings on that campus that lack any type of character. They stand as a casualty of a changing health-care system that struggles while doing its best to keep Americans healthy during the COVID-19 outbreak.

One other large piece in the last eight months of our lives is the mental health factor. County officials have noted the unfortunate increases in drug overdoses. The department reported in August that on average, Chautauqua County experienced about 20 overdoses per month in 2019. Through July of this year, the county has experienced an average of 29 overdoses per month.

Lakeshore was the location in the north county for those who needed behavioral health assistance. Who knows how much of the overdose increase can be linked to the facility closing?

That empty Irving facility is upsetting. Those overdoses — and other mental issues that have come with the virus — are heartbreaking.

John D’Agostino is the regional editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and the Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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