Steve Hanley reached his 70th birthday on Thursday with an appreciation for his local hospital because it was there — at Brandywine Hospital — where he had stents implanted and where his shoulder was rebuilt after a motorcycle accident.
But Hanley also knows things are different now.
Brandywine and Jennersville hospitals, both in Chester County, have closed, making critical health care services more difficult to reach for many residents.
“Free enterprise is one thing,” said Hanley, a Honeybrook Township resident who retired from a drilling manufacturer. “But to cut people off from such a major area is not right. To all of a sudden just remove that service.”
The closures of the two hospitals by their owner, Tower Health of Reading, came last winter after an attempt by Tower to sell them failed.
A bill recently introduced in the Legislature by Sen. Katie Muth, a Montgomery County Democrat, would require approval from the state before a hospital or hospital system could be purchased. It also would set new requirements intended to increase transparency on prices for hospital services.
“Every Pennsylvanian should be concerned about it, because there is no stopgap for a hospital just packing up and getting out of Dodge,” Muth said. “There is no mechanism in which the state has a program where they can step in.”
The Lehigh Valley’s two major hospital systems, Lehigh Valley Health Network and St. Luke’s University Health Network, have problems with the concept.
St. Luke’s spokesperson Samuel Kennedy said the proposals “would not only be onerous and costly for hospitals, but are unnecessary as processes are already in place through the Office of the Attorney General to protect patients’ access to care.”
Brian Downs of LVHN said, “No one wants to see their hospital close. Oversight is important, but further regulating opportunities like acquisition when it might be the only option to try to keep a hospital open could do more harm than good in the long run.”
Tower, formerly known as Reading Health System, bought five hospitals, including Jennersville and Brandywine, in late 2017. The others were Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia, Phoenixville Hospital and Pottstown Hospital.
It closed Jennersville Hospital in Penn Township and Brandywine in Caln Township, according to Muth, last winter after the failure of a planned sale to Canyon Atlantic Partners that would have allowed the buildings to stay open.
The sale, she said, would have saved Tower Health “from impending financial fallout.”
Since then, more questions about Tower’s financial health have been raised, leading to speculation about the future of other hospitals it owns.
The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported Tower’s cash reserves are “extremely low” and have sunk by $331 million over a recent 12-month period.
Dr. Bruce Colley, a family practitioner and president of the Chester County Medical Society, said when Jennersville and Brandywine closed, planning was complicated for people who needed surgeries, X-rays, physical therapy, blood work, nutritional and psychological counseling.
He believes Muth’s bill — and an identical one in the state House, sponsored by Democrats Kristine Howard, Melissa Shusterman and Dan Williams, all of Chester County — should be considered.
“I don’t like to interfere with free enterprise,” Colley said. “But a hospital is different. It is a public trust.”
In a statement responding to submitted questions, a Tower spokesperson wrote that its margin has improved and operating losses have narrowed by $50 million.
The organization is working on improving its financial performance “while focusing our service area in Berks, northern Chester, and western Montgomery counties, as well as St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children and Drexel University College of Medicine at Tower Health,” the statement said.
Shusterman said the purpose of the bills is to give communities a chance to prepare for a potential hospital closure and to provide more transparency on prices.
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The Legislature is controlled by Republicans, so the Democratic bill sponsors will need at least some support from across the aisle to move the measures forward.
Sen. Judy Ward, a Blair County Republican, said she was concerned that Muth’s bill would increase regulations for hospitals already struggling with staffing shortages, inflation and increased demand for services.
If approved, Ward said, the measure “would only further strain these facilities, leading to decreased quality of care for all those who need it.”
Republican Sen. Michele Brooks of Mercer County, who chairs the committee considering Muth’s bill, was noncommittal when asked about it.
Brooks said, “I am looking at each bill to ensure that what we do legislatively will help patients access quality health care, no matter where they live in Pennsylvania.”
Morning Call Capitol correspondent Ford Turner can be reached at [email protected]