Dec. 30—BEAVER FALLS — Although the decision by town of Diana leadership to remove the Lewis County Health System from the Harrisville Health Center really had nothing to do with Dr. R. Brian Shambo, it has impacted him like no other — and he has a few things to say.
The family health practitioner serving the community at the Harrisville site has been relocated to Beaver River Health Center.
"I'm more upset about the failure of local government than I am about me moving to Beaver Falls," Dr. Shambo said in an interview earlier this week. "They failed the people they are supposed to serve — and it just so happened that it was in a medical way — but they completely failed those people because of a vendetta ... That just sticks in my craw."
Dr. Shambo said that the Health System asked him to move his practice from Lowville to Harrisville in 2019, because the physician assistant who had been running the Harrisville clinic for a number of years was no longer the best option and was instead being offered a position closer to her supervising physician in Lowville.
Although the Diana Town Board, which is the Health System's landlord as the owner of the clinic building, was notified of the change, the board says it was not consulted. That caused outrage, as expressed by constituents during an April 2019 town meeting that was well attended by supporters of the PA, Brittani L. Bickel.
According to the 2019 meeting minutes, then Town Supervisor David E. Parow, who was at the time and continues to be a patient of Ms. Bickel, requested and received permission from the four town board members to do whatever it took, for however long it took, to bring back the PA.
To Dr. Shambo — over the board's other complaints against the Health System related to building repairs — it was that "vendetta" that led to the town's decision to cut ties with Lewis County Health to pursue the PA's current employer, Clifton-Fine Hospital, to run the clinic.
"The people that live in the town knew what it was about for the most part," Dr. Shambo said. "The patients were almost universally very angry ... none of them were fooled about what this was about."
The timing of the decision, in the middle of the pandemic's latest surge, was another point of contention for the doctor because the clinic was the only place providing same-day COVID-19 testing for the Harrisville Central School District and local businesses. The decision has also meant the loss of easy access to health care for community members without transportation, like Dr. Shambo's older patients who would walk to their appointments.
"I'm upset about what it's going to do for health care in general in the community and my patients in particular. There are people in that town who don't have transportation, and now they don't have their doctor," he said. "It seems like they weren't even taken into account."
The board, Dr. Shambo added, "just didn't even consider the people."
"And there's a lot of people," he said. "We were busy."
The board stepped back from the Clifton-Fine negotiations after public outcry at another well-attended special board meeting on Nov. 30, after news of the board's decision to cut ties with Lewis County Health became public. The town now plans to issue a request for proposals to run the clinic from a number of north country health care providers, including Clifton-Fine and Lewis County, after building upgrades are complete.
The timeframe for completion, however, was estimated by engineers to be much longer than anticipated due to ongoing supply chain challenges, so the town tried to negotiate with Lewis County to continue with Dr. Shambo in the clinic. An agreement was not reached before state paperwork severing the relationship had to be sent.
Although the doctor said he never believed Mr. Parow and the board were necessarily being earnest in those negotiations either, he did say that things might be different under the new leadership of Zachary Smith, who he referred to as a "mouthpiece" for Mr. Parow's plans to break off the relationship with Lewis County Health. Mr. Smith, a town board member and Mr. Parow's deputy supervisor, is now acting supervisor following Mr. Parow's resignation due to retirement.
"The tragedy in a situation like this is that we're not talking about a sewer (project)," Dr. Shambo said of the difference between the clinic and typical town business. "We're talking about a medical clinic that they've had for about 50 years (in that building). It's so frustrating."
Over the years, Dr. Shambo has had to move his practice around the county and has patients from LaFargeville, Gouverneur, Copenhagen, Lowville and now, Diana.
"I'm not taking it personally because they haven't directed it personally at me." Dr. Shambo said, adding that when residents ask for the PA back, "it's not like they're asking for a stranger, they're asking for a person they like."
Even if an agreement is one day reached between Diana leadership and the Health System — which he credits for being committed to providing health care to the entire county — Dr. Shambo doesn't see himself in the picture.
"Up until the 15th (of December), I was ready to stay there," Dr. Shambo said, alluding to the last day he saw patients at the Harrisville building. "But now, it's not going to happen. I'm not that long until retirement. I'm not going back and doing that again."
Lewis County Health Chief Executive Officer Gerald R. Cayer said he enjoys "an engaging and instructive relationship" with medical staff, noting that "their opinions matter to me." He also said he wouldn't expect to move Dr. Shambo's practice again in the future.
"We've been fortunate that we had a highly skilled medical team in Harrisville. Dr. Shambo and the staff have provided great service to the community, but right now, the best way to serve Harrisville is for Dr. Shambo and his team to be at the Beaver River Health Center," Mr. Cayer said.
Encouraged by the tone of negotiations with Mr. Smith, Mr. Cayer maintains that the Health System will look at the town's request for proposals "and evaluate if it is something we can do."
Because recruiting physicians to work in rural areas is "nearly impossible" across the country, Mr. Cayer said the Health System is likely to make a different plan for Harrisville if the relationship with Diana is rebuilt.
"We would recruit a family nurse practitioner that would make a long-term commitment to the community and really try to follow the approach we engaged in Copenhagen (Health Center)," he said.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, this article has been corrected to indicate that former town of Harrisville Superintendant David Parow resigned due to retirement.