Building the case for a new Brooks

OBSERVER Photo This section of Main Street will likely be transformed by the new Brooks hospital.

Nov. 10, 2017, was a day of sadness and excitement in Buffalo. Women’s and Children’s Hospital, which had been located on Bryant Street for decades, was moving to a new state-of-the-art facility in the Queen City’s medical corridor on Ellicott Street.

More than a year later, not many of those who have utilized the Oishei Children’s Hospital for treatment would say the institution would be better off at the old facility. The current 12-story structure is more open and designed with families and children in mind.

Simply put, the previous location was more than adequate, but today’s site is fantastic — and a model for future health-care institutions of its type.

Dunkirk is facing a similar dilemma with Brooks Memorial Hospital and its upcoming transition to the former Cornell Cooperative Extension site off East Main Street, which is in close proximity to Fredonia Central Schools. A petition opposing the relocation is making the rounds — and has received thousands of signatures — while concerns from village residents also are being heard, specifically about traffic impact.

Anxiety is high, but the Brooks’ board in selecting this location has sent a message: the time is now for the community to rally around a commitment to local health care.

“The prize is really having local health care,” said Chris Lanski, hospital board chair. “The community thinks that it’s a right and what we’re finding is it isn’t a right. It’s something we have to work really hard and fight for and if we’re not in a position to take on the changes … we wouldn’t exist.”

Fiscal worries

For more than a decade, Brooks has been bleeding cash. Before 2008, reserves at the hospital were nearly $17 million. Years of running deficits due to a number of systematic problems in the institution as well as the changing health-care scene has wiped that out. Total assets, according to the Internal Revenue Service 990 forms, reveal less than $3 million.

Obviously, the current course is unsustainable.

That does not mean a new direction will be convenient. It began again in 2016 with an agreement for Brooks and TLC Health Network in Irving to work as one. Kaleida Health in Buffalo, which is assisting both hospitals, additionally became involved.

Then the funds came for a new structure. If all goes according to plan, construction at the 30-acre site could begin this spring. It includes some new additions, as well as downsizing.

Many in the community wonder how Brooks, an institution licensed by the state to have 65 beds, is able to decrease to 29 in the project. Mary E. LaRowe, president and chief executive officer at the institution, says it comes down to the numbers. During a busy week, especially flu season, the census can exceed 30. But for most of the year, the range is from 18 to 22.

Improvements at the new location include a helipad with additional medical office buildings. More importantly, officials say, is an excitement for potential new doctors and health-care employees coming to the area.

Bluntly put, the current Brooks facility is old and outdated. It is historical, but not exciting.

LaRowe, who has been at the helm for nearly three years, is overseeing the day-to-day operations. But the ship of progress — and relocation — is being steered by a board of directors.

Partnerships for health

Lanski has dealt with frustration and hope for more than a decade that has included four different administrators. Health care is always evolving — and rural hospitals can no longer fend for themselves. Without a major partner, their futures are doomed.

Westfield Memorial Hospital could not operate without assistance from Allegheny Health Network. UPMC Chautauqua, formerly WCA Hospital in Jamestown, is tied to Hamot and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. By all accounts, these partnerships have made smaller hospitals stronger.

This is where Brooks believes it is heading, thanks to $70 million in funding from New York state. How significant is this building project? Very few rural hospitals has been built in the last two decades, including one recently in Corning.

In her State of the Village address on Wednesday evening, Mayor Athanasia Landis highlighted the significance of the new facility. “Construction of a new hospital is a very rare occasion,” she said. “In a rural place, where hospitals are closed down at an alarming rate, it’s almost unthinkable.”

Criticism this past week has rightly come from Richard Ketcham, former president and chief executive officer at Brooks and current county Planning Board member, about the lack of community involvement on the project. Both LaRowe and Lanski understand his point of view and note the hospital will be reaching out to key members in the future.

“We have a communication plan that we want to roll out,” Lanski said, noting that meetings will likely happen toward the end of the month.

Landis has also heard the concerns, but pleaded for residents — inside and outside the village — to come together for a new beginning. “I would like to encourage everyone to allow this new hospital to unite us and not divide us. This is a great project and an amazing opportunity.”

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.

COMMENTS