July 28, 2013

Boothbay region 'full of fear' as hospital closing looms

MaineHealth officials call it the best path forward, but a community with many older residents worries about having no ER nearby.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BOOTHBAY HARBOR - They come to Jane Good's beauty shop in Southport nearly every day to have their hair done and share their fears that the pending closure of the St. Andrews Hospital emergency room could mean their death.

Today's poll: Hospital closing

Do you agree with Lincoln County Health Care's decision to close St. Andrews Hospital?

Yes

No

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On Oct. 1, St. Andrews in Boothbay Harbor will cease to be a hospital.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Additional Photos Below

They are Good's longtime customers, many of whom have been coming to her for decades, now in their 70s and 80s. They come from across the Boothbay region, a 14-mile peninsula, and sit in Good's salon, attached to her house with a doorway view of her kitchen, and ask how this could be happening.

"They just want to be able to be taken to St. Andrews in five minutes if something goes wrong," says Good, one of the leaders in the fight to stop the closure. "This whole community is so full of fear, fear that somebody they know is going to die because they can't get to the hospital in time."

But on Oct. 1, St. Andrews, located five minutes up the road and over the swing bridge in Boothbay Harbor, will cease to be a hospital. Its emergency department will close and 25 hospital beds will disappear. A 10-hour-a-day urgent care center will take its place, but ambulances and emergency cases will be directed another half-hour north to Miles Memorial Hospital in Damariscotta, which is itself being downsized from 38 beds to 25.

The changes were announced just over a year ago by Lincoln County Health Care, the parent entity of the two hospitals, which effectively merged in 2007. LCHC, itself a part of MaineHealth, the state's largest hospital network, and its board insist it is the only way forward for two rural hospitals pinched by demographics, federal and state reimbursement policies, and declining patient visits. St. Andrews' bare-bones emergency department can't provide a safe level of care, they say, and rectifying the situation would be extremely expensive, squandering resources that should rather be spent addressing the community's other health care needs.

"For many years now, the 24/7 St. Andrews emergency department hasn't been busy enough to sustain itself from a quality and patient care perspective and secondarily from a financial perspective," says James Donovan, LCHC's CEO. "There are better ways to take care of the truly emergent cases than what we are doing now." The hospital had 4,692 emergency visits in fiscal year 2007, but only 3,770 in 2012, and only a few people each day turn out to need emergency care.

Opponents say Lincoln County Health Care and MaineHealth have betrayed the community's trust, dismantling a vital institution founded on land donated by town doctor George Gregory in 1908 and nurtured by gifts from local donors and sales rung in by generations of volunteer clerks at the St. Andrews Auxiliary Thrift Store. Since St. Andrews joined MaineHealth in 1996 -- and with LCHC in 2007 -- they've seen the hospital's services cut back, with general surgery, acute care services and oncology transferred to Miles, part of what some believe was an intentional effort to undermine the tiny hospital's vitality.

"If they had really sincerely looked at how we could save this and turned over every stone and not found a way, that would be one thing," says retired clinical counselor Howard Wright of Southport, who served on St. Andrews' board in the mid-1990s. "But no, their whole viewpoint was to close it down, and to do it drip by drip by drip. ... I feel they engineered this for failure."

A REGION UP IN ARMS

Many of the region's residents do not accept the argument that the emergency department can't be made viable, and they have fought the changes since they were announced, mounting an unsuccessful challenge before the office of Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills. (Mills concluded "there are no legal grounds" for her office to block the changes.) In largely symbolic referendums held in four towns -- Boothbay Harbor, Boothbay, Edgecomb and Southport -- this year, 86 percent of the region's residents opposed the emergency room closure.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Hairdresser Jane Good of Southport Island talks about the proposed closure of St. Andrews Hospital in Boothbay Harbor with summer resident Walter Weil. Good's salon has become an epicenter of support for keeping the hospital alive in the community.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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James Donovan, CEO of Lincoln County Health Care, supports the emergency room’s closure at St. Andrews Hospital in Boothbay Harbor. “For many years now, the 24/7 St. Andrews emergency department hasn’t been busy enough to sustain itself,” Donovan says.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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George McEvoy of Boothbay Harbor, photographed in Portland last week, opposes the pending loss of St. Andrews Hospital, where he has had positive experiences with its medical care. McEvoy says Lincoln County Health Care didn’t want the Boothbay Harbor hospital to succeed.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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William Caron, CEO of MaineHealth: “We are changing the way care is being provided on the (Boothbay) peninsula, and it’s going to be the best care in the state of Maine when we’re done.”

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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After Oct. 1, the nonprofit Boothbay Region Ambulance Service will take emergency patients from the Boothbay peninsula to Miles Memorial Hospital in Damariscotta, a 30-minute drive from downtown Boothbay Harbor, above, and 40 minutes from the southern tip of Southport or Ocean Point in Boothbay.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Signs of community support for St. Andrews pepper the landscape in the Boothbay region. In largely symbolic referendums held in four towns – Boothbay Harbor, Boothbay, Edgecomb and Southport – this year, 86 percent of the region’s residents opposed the emergency room closure.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer



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Today's poll: Hospital closing

Do you agree with Lincoln County Health Care's decision to close St. Andrews Hospital?

Yes

No

View Results