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Is this a last stand for Brooks-TLC?

OBSERVER Photo

Let’s be honest. Brooks-TLC Hospital System in Dunkirk has done itself no favors in how it has handled some significant decisions that have negatively impacted this community in the last decade.

On very short notice, which included no public comment, the board of directors and its administration closed the Lakeshore Hospital in Irving in February 2020. Within the past seven months, the facility has put its obstetrics department on hold while blaming staffing challenges and forcing non-emergency births to happen in Buffalo or Jamestown. Add in years of fiscal instability that totals $45 million in deficits over five years and you have a full-fledged crisis that has become a community emergency.

This was not always the case. Before 2008, Brooks Memorial Hospital was a shining example as a rural health care center in the nation.

At the time, the well-run institution had reserves of more than $17 million while regularly reporting surpluses at the end of the fiscal year.

But those glory days are long gone. Today’s reality is something many here are still having a tough time fathoming: Brooks is hanging by a thread.

For those who do not believe it, all one needs to do is read the commentary by former state Sen. Catharine Young. In Wednesday’s OBSERVER, Young noted the doom and gloom facing the institution.

“A catastrophic tsunami is about to hit northern Chautauqua County in about a month, and we need everyone to pull together to save our rural health care system,” Young wrote. “Brooks-TLC Hospital soon will be on life support and is in danger of dying in the very near future because of continued delays in building the new hospital.”

That’s led to the call for a rally of community support that is to take place at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Clarion Hotel on Lake Shore Drive in Dunkirk. What’s most important to note is this is not just a city or a village of Fredonia issue. This affects us all — from volunteer first-responders to those who need vital emergency medical attention.

In 2016 and 2017, New York state set aside $74 million with the promise of a new state-of-the-art facility for Brooks. What should have been considered a gift has become a burden.

To be fair, there has been a bit of mismanagement in this process as well. The hospital’s first choice for a new location was in the town of Pomfret off Route 20 east of the village in 2017, but town zoning issues hampered that selection. In early 2019, the currently proposed site on East Main Street across from the Fredonia Central Schools was chosen.

One year later, however, the world came to a halt. COVID-19 forced the state Health Department to focus fully on care, not new facilities. Add in the resignation in 2021 of former state Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a massive changing of the guard throughout Albany’s leadership and that $74 million promised six years ago is lost in a bureaucracy.

Young’s plea for releasing those funds comes as the clock is ticking. In less than three weeks, the option to purchase that land where Brooks-TLC wants to build will expire.

Without that facility in Dunkirk-Fredonia, there will be no 24-hour health-care facility outside those in Buffalo, Westfield or Jamestown. That is a potential 60-mile radius that is not being serviced in a three-county region that includes Erie and Cattaraugus.

Northern Chautauqua County’s connection to finding that funding should come easily enough, since Gov. Kathy Hochul is a Western New York native. However, despite letters of support for the new Brooks’ facility from current County Executive PJ Wendel and numerous other officials, those big bucks remain in limbo.

In the meantime, the current facility at Central and Sixth streets has seen better days. Besides numerous daily maintenance issues, the facility has a look and feel of the 1970s while trying to compete in this new era of medicine.

Chris Lanski, longtime Brooks-TLC hospital board chair, understands the decline while noting the closing of numerous small-town hospitals across the state and nation. He also knows the $74 million opportunity that seems so close, also remains so far away.

“The prize is really having local health care,” he said in 2019. “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.”

At this point, the discussion can no longer be about location or renovation. It’s all about having one voice to save health care in this region.

This could be our last chance.

is the editor of the OBSEVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 716-366-3000, ext. 253.

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