County legislature narrowly votes to continue pathology services with Health Alliance

The Ulster County Legislature voted 13-9 on September 14, to continue to contract with HealthAlliance parent WMC Health for pathology services, but not before several legislators, using the meeting as a forum, expressed outrage over the healthcare conglomerate moving inpatient mental health services out of Kingston.

Many legislators said how they didn’t want one cent to go to an organization they say has dismantled Ulster County’s community health after inpatient mental health services were moved out of the former Benedictine Hospital campus in 2020 on what hospital officials said then was a temporary basis to free up beds for an expected surge in COVID-19 cases, with those seeking such services being forced to go WMC Health’s Mid-Hudson Regional Hospital in Poughkeepsie.

Casting a no to what he billed “a protest vote” Legislature chairman Dave Donaldson (D-Kingston) expressed outrage the 60 beds have never returned to Kingston. “They never intended to move these beds back to Kingston,” he said. “They profited from the pandemic to eliminate inpatient mental healthcare.”

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He said he was only enraged more when he found out HealthAlliance axed 40 staff and began to cut more positions, putting extraordinary stress on the remaining staff.  “Rather than compassion and support they made staff reductions and existing nurses had to take on double shifts,” he said. “These short-sighted executives risk more than public health. HealthAlliance is creating a healthcare desert in Ulster County, especially for those with less means who can’t go elsewhere.”

Ken Ronk, (R-Shawangunk) said Donaldson said it all too well.  “WMC Health has gotten more than $100 million from the state and other organizations to build up healthcare and has used that money to transfer care from both hospitals to Broadway, then back to Mary’s Ave and now not in our community. Like the chairman said they’re taking healthcare from our residents.”

Ronk said as a first responder he sees people who need this sort of care closer to home. He said Dutchess County has higher reimbursement rates for Medicaid and he thinks that’s behind WMCHealth moving inpatient mental health services out of Kingston. “If they intake someone at Kingston Hospital or Benedictine Hospital and transfer them across the river they get more money.”

Legislator Al Bruno, a Republican who represents District 2 in Saugerties also said he didn’t want the legislature to give WMCHealth a dime until the inpatient mental health beds return to Kingston. He said the move couldn’t come at a worse time as Opioid use and overdoses have skyrocketed during the pandemic. “Health Alliance is looking at the bottom line,” he said. “Their frontline workers when the pandemic started to wane, they terminated them so we can’t [give] them any more money.”

He urged the county to contract with organizations that cared more about the public good than the bottom line.

But the legislature admitted its hands were tied with it being simply too expensive and impractical to move pathological services out of the county and the resolution ended up passing.

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