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Workers criticize bill to sell state hospitals

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State workers gathered in the West Virginia House chambers Tuesday to denounce a bill that would let the Department of Health and Human Resources sell four state facilities that together house more than 260 senior citizens.

House Bill 4352, introduced last week, would allow the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources to sell Lakin Hospital in Mason County, Jackie Withrow Hospital in Beckley, Hopemont Hospital in Preston County and John Manchin Senior Health Care Center in Fairmont. If passed, it directs the DHHR to develop a plan to unload the three hospitals by Nov. 30, and to sell each and divest itself of the contracts associated with them by July 1, 2017.

“We’re more than just a number on a spreadsheet; we’re more than just 41 licensed beds waiting to be sold,” said Michelle Crandall, administrator at Joe Manchin Senior Health Care Center. “We house 27 of the most wonderful elderly people you can imagine.”

The four facilities in the bill are among seven hospitals run by the state — the other three include West Virginia’s two psychiatric hospitals — Mildred Mitchell Bateman Hospital in Huntington and William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital in Weston — and one medical hospital, Welch Community Hospital. Jackie Withrow is the largest facility included in the bill, with 199 beds, and Manchin the smallest, with 41 beds.

The West Virginia House of Delegates held a public hearing Tuesday on the bill, which calls for the DHHR to develop “strategies to minimize the effects on state and contract employees,” as well as “strategies to minimize the effects on long-term care facility residents.” The bill also would create a fund within the state treasury called the “Health Care Facilities Liquidation Fund.”

No one at the public hearing spoke in favor of the bill.

The bill comes two years after an unsuccessful attempt by the DHHR to privatize two psychiatric hospitals. A plan to privatize William R. Sharpe Hospital, in Weston, and Mildred Mitchell Bateman Hospital, in Huntington, was rejected by Kanawha Circuit Court Judge Duke Bloom, whose decision was upheld by the West Virginia Supreme Court.

Like Sharpe and Bateman, the state’s nursing homes are consistently understaffed — Manchin has 65 employees and 17 vacancies, Hopemont has 137 employees and 61 vacancies, Jackie Withrow has 189 employees and 40 vacancies, and Lakin has 145 employees and 34 vacancies, according to the DHHR. Each hospital is also well under capacity — Manchin has 41 licensed beds and currently has 27 residents, Hopemont has 98 licensed beds but only 61 residents, Lakin has 114 licensed beds and 94 residents, and Jackie Withrow has 199 licensed beds and only 86 residents.

Delegate Peggy Donaldson Smith, D-Lewis, said the bill has implications for the future of all of the state-run hospitals, including Sharpe, in Smith’s home county.

“I want to go on the record right now and say I’m opposed to this bill,” Smith said. “What’s going to happen to the patients after the facilities are sold? What’s going to happen to the land … and what’s going to happen to the buildings? Will they continue to stick to provisions for pensions once the state privatizes these hospitals?”

Gary DeLuke of the West Virginia Public Workers Union, said the bill is troubling because it is vague on what happens after the sale.

“With these facilities, as they stand, we have a guarantee of hundreds of jobs, we have a guarantee that people will get the care that they need. With this bill, will there be a guarantee of jobs? There will be no jobs created,” DeLuke said.

“Will patients have another place to go, if these places do get shut down?”

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