CMH leaders, Pondicherry Group square off regarding healthcare access

Central Maine Healthcare president Jeff Brickman opened his presentation to Bridgton Selectmen Tuesday night saying Bridgton Hospital is not closing nor is it for sale.

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

Central Maine Healthcare president Jeff Brickman wanted to make clear to Bridgton selectmen and a large crowd that filled the town office meeting room Tuesday night two facts:

1. Bridgton Hospital is not closing.

2. Bridgton Hospital is not for sale.

Brickman emphasized that CMH is commited to the Bridgton and Lake Region community and is working diligently to improve healthcare access.

“We want to do right by the community,” he said. Brickman admitted that while tackling a mounting deficit upon his arrival, “We made some mistakes along the way. We could have communicated better. CMH is committed to the community as it has been for the last 20 years. We are focusing on what we haven’t done well.”

He added that CMH leaders are developing plans and strategies to keep Bridgton Hospital a valuable and viable provider of health care.

Tuesday’s meeting was highly-anticipated as CMH leadership, including new Bridgton Hospital president Peter Wright, looked to brief town officials and the public on steps being taken to address the loss of nearly a dozen physicians and reduction in services.

And, Brickman looked to set the record straight regarding recommendations being floated by the Pondicherry Group — an informal group of friends and neighbors concerned about healthcare access and the direction Bridgton Hospital is headed in.

Both groups made presentations to selectmen.

Selectmen Chairman Lee Eastman noted that as an elected board, selectmen would not take a position on what the future of Bridgton Hospital should be, and secondly, the two ground rules for the evening were: there was no Question/Answer period, and he expected all in attendance to show respect.  

The boardroom started to fill at 4:30 p.m., and by the time Eastman started the meeting just after 5 p.m., it was at capacity. A majority of attendees were hospital personnel. 

Eastman noted it was easily the largest turnout for a selectmen’s meeting he had seen. Public Works Director Jim Kidder dared to say attendance topped most annual town meetings.

Neither Central Maine Healthcare (CMH) officials nor Pondicherry Group speakers spent a lot of time challenging comments or positions reported by media outlets last week.

Brickman simply noted that some “inaccuracies” were mentioned by the Pondicherry Group regarding the financial state of CMH and Bridgton Hospital. He pointed out that in September 2016, when he arrived, the system had cash on hand to cover costs for 33 days. In fiscal year 2018, that figure jumped to 100 days, showing a financial turnaround has occurred and there is “significant improvement in the viability” of CMH.

Brickman also challenged claims that the system had failed in terms of “quality.” He pointed that all three hospitals — Bridgton, Rumford and Central Maine — had recently received Leapfrog honors, a national indicator regarding quality of care.

He ended his presentation noting that while 10 primary-care providers had left the system, CMH has recruited new physicians and continues to “rebuild” the medical staff base. He called for patience, pointing out the difficulty across the country to recruit physicians, especially to rural facilities like Bridgton Hospital.

Brickman pointed to studies that show 30% of primary care physicians are 60 years of age or older, while only two to three percent have a steep challenge today,” he said.

New Bridgton Hospital president Peter Wright, who starts his new job in 27 days, knows the challenges quite well, having spent his career working in northern New England rural settings.

Wright sees healthcare as “people taking care of people,” and the main reason he applied for the Bridgton job was to be part of and work for a rural community. His focus will be increasing services and access.

“It’s not happening as fast as you would like. It takes time,” he said. “There’s more demand than supply. We want people here who share our values and want to be here.”

Bridgton and Rumford Hospital personnel that Wright has met so far are “Grade A.” What can the community expect from Wright? He will be present and eager to listen.

David Welbourn, a member of the Pondicherry Group's leadership committee, opened the presentation for the local advocate group. (Rivet Photo)

Part 2: Pondicherry Group findings

David Welbourn, a former senior vice president at the Lahey Clinic, opened the Pondicherry Group presentation by outlining points to be discussed: Sharing findings and recommendations, what are the levels of interest, and the need for the public to speak out regarding healthcare access.

A member of the group’s leadership committee, two points Welbourn wanted to clarify from media reports were: 1. As an advocate group, they have no power to push for a “sale” of Bridgton Hospital from CMH to another entity (just concerned folks brainstorming ideas); 2. He found a comment in a media report about fellow leadership committee member Rob Slattery as simply being a “disgruntled former employee” as inaccurate. Welbourn called Slattery, who resigned last year as Bridgton Hospital’s vice president, as a “concerned citizen” like many others regarding loss of services and access with the departure of several physicians.

Welbourn, along with other speakers Cathy Finck and Dani Mooney, noted that the group has spoken to “many” individuals across the region over the past six months, and heard resounding concerns about the present state of Bridgton Hospital.

“Anyone who wanted to talk, we listened,” Welbourn said.

Based on comments, the group looked for solutions, including the possibility of creating an alliance with MaineHealth after attempted conversations with CMH failed, Finck said.

“We asked them to share their strategic plan, but they were not willing to,” Finck said.

Finck pointed out that many patients have followed their primary care physicians and some specialists to other hospitals, most notably Memorial in North Conway, N.H. and Stephens Memorial in Norway —both MaineHealth affiliates.

Mooney reported on the results of an online survey. Of the 100 people responding, 70 percent feel access has declined; 70 percent feel quality of care has declined; and 70 percent support transferring BH assets out of Central Maine Healthcare.

Finck said the survey’s program shutdown after 100 responses, but the group would be willing to reopen it or to add more questions. The public remains invited to e-mail comments and questions to: pondicherrygroup.me@gmail.com

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