A Lakes Region citizens group critical of health care at Bridgton Hospital is asking municipal officials and residents to help it shift control of the hospital from parent Central Maine Healthcare to MaineHealth.
The Pondicherry Group has sent letters to the selectboards in the 13 Lakes Region towns, which include Bridgton and Harrison, asking them to support what it calls an initiative to improve the quality of and access to health care in the Lakes Region, which is about 30 miles northwest of Portland. The group also is asking the selectboards for an opportunity to present its case to them.
That involves a plan to either move ownership of Bridgton Hospital to a new, nonprofit group or to MaineHealth, which operates Maine Medical Center and nine regional hospitals, including Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway, which is about 14 miles from Bridgton.
“We aren’t selling Bridgton Hospital,” said Jeff Brickman, CEO of Central Maine Healthcare in Lewiston. The hospital group includes Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, Bridgton Hospital, Rumford Hospital and various private practices in central Maine.
Brickman said the Pondicherry Group has not reached out to talk to him.
However, Dani Mooney, a member of of the Pondicherry Group, said the group has reached out to Brickman and other Central Maine Healthcare executives by email and phone, but has had no answers. Mooney also is director of the Lakes Region Substance Abuse Coalition.
Mooney added that members of Pondicherry Group have talked to management at MaineHealth, including CEO William Caron. The group also has talked to Mercy Hospital and Northern Light Health.
“We’re not taking anything off the table at this point,” Mooney said.
Brickman said his organization has not received a formal offer from MaineHealth or anyone else to buy Bridgton Hospital.
“MaineHealth has not formally approached us or given us anything to respond to,” he said.
MaineHealth spokesman John Porter said his hospital group is aware that members of the community in Bridgton have been engaged in an ongoing dialogue regarding health care services.
“Some involved in those discussions have reached out to MaineHealth, inquiring whether the organization would be willing to play a role in meeting the community’s healthcare needs,” Porter wrote in an email. “We have indicated we are willing to discuss such a role, working closely with community members, officials in Bridgton and, importantly, our colleagues at Bridgton Hospital’s parent, Central Maine Healthcare.”
Brickman took over Central Maine Healthcare about 2 1/2 years ago and has been embroiled ever since in controversy and an uphill battle to improve cash flow and streamline services.
While he has successfully improved conditions at other struggling health care systems, his efforts for Central Maine Healthcare met resistance.
In July 2018, doctors, nurses and other staff issued “no confidence” votes in Brickman, citing hospital changes they considered detrimental to medical care, service cuts and what they saw as his brash manner with staff. The hospital board supported him, and the no confidence votes did not result in any sanctions.
Brickman was quick to stem the red ink that had been bleeding for years from the Central Maine Healthcare system. However, he admitted he may have moved too quickly and failed to fully communicate his vision for changes to reinvigorate the financially anemic medical system.
The Pondicherry Group, which was formed about six months ago, claims more than 50 percent of Lakes Region doctors have left Bridgton Hospital without replacement since the turmoil last year. It also asserts that the hospital group’s assets continue in a downward spiral that started in 2018.
Central Maine Healthcare spokeswoman Kate Carlisle said that five of Bridgton Hospital’s total of 15 physicians left since 2018.
“We have since hired six physicians at Bridgton as well as a number or nurse practitioners and physician assistants,” she said. “More candidates are in the pipeline and are either in the interview stage, the offer stage or the contract phase.”
She said it take awhile to recruit, interview, hire and credential providers, in some cases six months or more. Central Maine Healthcare is using doctors in temporary positions to bridge the gap.
Still, Pondicherry is concerned over access to care.
“Our group is looking at issues with Central Maine Healthcare, not Bridgton Hospital,” Mooney said. “The lack of timely access to primary care providers is our concern.”
Five members representing the group sent letters to the Harrison and Bridgton selectboards asking them to support a no-confidence vote in Central Maine Healthcare’s ownership and management of its Lakes Region health care assets.
It also asked the selectboards to support Pondicherry’s proposal that Central Maine Healthcare divest its ownership in Bridgton Hospital, primary care and other assets and either put them in a new, locally owned nonprofit health care holding company that will form affiliations with MaineHealth or transfer them directly to MaineHealth.
Both towns are leaning toward letting Pondicherry speak at upcoming selectboard meetings, but also said they cannot publicly back the group’s ideas.
“While we agree health care in Bridgton has degraded severely, I do not believe the board can publicly support a private business organization,” Lee Eastman, chairman of the Bridgton board of selectmen, wrote to group member Mooney in response to its letter.
“While we want a new health care organization to come and revitalize our once great system, we believe this is up to private businesses to decide through business practices they see fit to convince the citizens of Bridgton that they are the best choice,” Eastman wrote in his response.
Along with Mooney, other Pondicherry members mentioned in the letter are James Cossey, Carhy Finck, Robert Slattery and David Welbourn. Slattery formerly led Bridgton and Rumford hospitals’ operations and business development efforts.
Eastman said both the Pondicherry Group and Central Maine Healthcare will be allowed to present information at a Feb. 12 selectboard meeting, but there will be no question-and-answer period.
“This is strictly for information for the public,” he said. “The public has voiced a lot of opinions and concerns on health care at earlier selectboard meetings, so I brought this forth on the agenda to let them decide.”
He said he lost his primary care physician from the Bridgton Hospital system, and ended up following the doctor to New Hampshire. He said he has heard other people are doing the same thing.
“A lot of folks are seeing a system losing doctors,” he said. “It’s a red flag.”
He said more communication from the hospital group would help.
Brickman challenged the Pondicherry Group’s assertions, and said services at Bridgton Hospital are being rebuilt.
And finances are improving. He said Bridgton Hospital had a net operating gain of 2 percent, or more than $1 million, in 2017. Cash on hand for the entire Central Maine Healthcare group rose to more than 89 days, which meets a goal he set last fall to expand the cash flow from 67 days in July 2018 to 90 days by the end of December.
The hospital also is hiring.
“We’ll have more physicians hired this year than last year both full time and part time,” he said, but did not give exact numbers. The hospital also is rebuilding its obstetrics program and adding nurses and other caregivers.
It also has hired a new president, Peter Wright, who will start in mid-March, and is opening a new walk-in clinic in north Bridgton on Feb. 15.
Harrison’s selectboard chairman Matthew Frank said he couldn’t comment on the Pondicherry letter. He turned it over to town manager Tim Pellerin, who in turn said he will hand it back to the selectboard at its meeting on Feb. 14.
In its letters, Pondicherry Group claimed there is an alarming rise in quality of care issues identified by state and federal agencies, as well as a sharp decline in the fortunes and leadership of Central Maine Healthcare.
“Over 50 percent of Central Maine Healthcare’s primary care and specialist physicians, including many physician leaders, have left their jobs over the last 18 months, resulting in an increasingly dangerous loss of access to health care services for all who live and visit Bridgton and the Lakes Region,” the group wrote in its letters.
“It appears that Central Maine Healthcare’s management of its Lakes Region health care assets has resulted in the continuing downward spiral in both access to care and needed services that began in 2018. The Pondicherry Group believes that Central Maine Healthcare has proven to not only be unable to resolve these negative trends but continues to be unresponsive to our region’s loss of access, services and care.”
The Pondicherry Group also emailed a Survey Monkey poll to some residents asking for yes or no answers to three questions.
In the survey email, Pondicherry Group member Cossey said that 51 percent of respondents who require hospital care go to Maine Medical in Portland, and that 18 percent go to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.
The group has been spreading its message to community groups, most recently at the Bridgton Rotary on Jan. 31, when it made a presentation to about 25 people, according to George Szok, a Rotary member who ran the meeting.
“We are concerned about health care,” Szok said. “There’s been a mass reduction in the number of doctors present locally.”
He said he and his wife also had difficulty finding primary health care after their physician left last year.
He questions whether Central Maine Healthcare’s financial standing is in jeopardy, and said there has been no transparency in knowing the situation.
“The hospital in Lincoln just filed for bankruptcy,” he said. “I’m worried the hospital will go under not because I know anything, but because I don’t.”
Brickman said he will go to communities to talk about the status of and plans for Bridgton Hospital and Central Maine Healthcare.
“When I came to Central Maine Healthcare there was no strategic plan in place for Bridgton Hospital,” he said. “We are working on the plan and will share it. It involves inpatient and outpatient care and senior care services.”
He said Central Maine Healthcare is continuing to “double down” on its investments in Bridgton Hospital.
“We wouldn’t do all that hard work if we didn’t believe in the community,” he said.”We are going through a difficult and transformative time in health care. And we are rebuilding.”