Legislators, parents, employees search for First Hospital solutions

·6 min read

Aug. 5—KINGSTON — Sandy Wazeter on Thursday said her son, Gerard, 32, offered a special prayer before he went to sleep Wednesday night.

Gerard, 32, attends the Day Development Program at First Hospital in Kingston, which will close Oct. 30, as announced Monday by Commonwealth Health System.

Gerard offered this prayer:

"Please God, let Day Development find a home."

Sandy Wazeter said about 45 patients from age 21 to the 70s attend the structured day program for adults with intellectual disabilities.

"Gerard loves the program," his mom said. "They take them into the community and they learn many life skills, It's like second home for them. And they love the staff, many whom they have known for years. They are feel very comfortable here."

Wazeter was one of about 50 people that attended a news conference Thursday across the street from First Hospital on Wyoming Avenue. State Reps. Aaron Kaufer, R-Kingston, and Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, attended, along with Tom Williams, representing Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township. Also attending were several employees and parents, all concerned about the closing and where the patients will have to go and also upset at the abruptness — "without warning" — that the closing was announced.

Like Gerard Wazeter and his peers, all connected with First Hospital are now hoping and praying for a quick resolution to the situation — a new operator, a closure alternative, or another solution in the best interests of all.

"This hospital is a staple in our community," Kaufer said to open the news conference. "It has served thousands of patients over the years — most recently serving those in need of mental health services, both as an in-patient and out-patient facility.

"The news from earlier this week about First Hospital closing its doors is incredibly alarming."

Kaufer said concerns intensified when the amount of programs and services that will be affected by the closure became apparent.

"They include Community Counseling services, outpatient assessments, evaluation and treatment for individuals suffering from mental health disorders, intellectual disabilities or substance abuse disorders, outpatient substance abuse counseling, the Crisis Response and Recovery Center of NEPA which provided 24/7 access to individuals experiencing emotional or psychiatric crises," Kaufer said. "This is the only location in Northeastern Pennsylvania for miles and miles that provides these services."

Kaufer said according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1-in-5 Americans live with a mental health condition — in Pennsylvania, more than 1.8 million individuals report having a mental illness, while 1.7 million residents live in a community without enough mental health professionals.

"Yes, beds and services will still be available, but fewer beds translates to fewer options, fewer resources, and fewer jobs," Kaufer said. "White Haven Center is already in the process of closing its doors. Our community cannot afford to lose another resource for mental health services."

Kaufer noted that mental health was a major part of this year's budget discussions — $100 million earmarked for both school and public mental health issues.

"The closure of First Hospital has the potential to send devastating shock-waves in our community," Kaufer said. "Devastating for the individuals currently in treatment. Devastating for those who need care, and now will have one less option to receive the services they need. Devastating for the employees, whose livelihood and source of income is in jeopardy."

Kaufer said he has reached out to speak with state and community partners so see what can be done to ensure there is no lapse in services provided and to ensure that jobs will not be lost.

Pashinski said state legislators will work together to ensure that the 5,000 patients get the proper service that they need.

"Not everybody can do this job," Pashinski said. "This is not an easy job. The nurses who are here today have worked hard to help those folks to a brighter future. These patients need that care and need that love."

Pashinski said he and Kaufer will work with Baker and Sen. Marty Flynn, D-Scranton, to engage in conversations with all of the people that are involved in this issue, from First Hospital to the state Health Department, "to anywhere we have to go."

Pashinski added, "We have to make sure, number one, those 5,000 patients are taken care of; and number two, those qualified nurses and those workers do not lose their jobs. That would be devastating to Northeastern Pennsylvania as well."

Union reacts to closure plan

Representatives of SEIU Healthdare PA, said the more than 50 nurses at First Hospital are deeply concerned about the state of mental health care and support in their community

"This is deeply troubling news for Luzerne County and the surrounding communities," said Matthew Yarnell, President of SEIU Healthcare PA, the union representing the more than 50 nurses at First Hospital. "This is the second community hospital closing in the northeast in the last week and these communities need that care. We're not sure of any options or recourse at the present time, but you can be certain we will be working closely with CHS to find a way forward that ensures the medical care and mental health needs of these communities are met. We're hopeful other local providers like Geisinger or Lehigh Valley Health may be able to help find a solution."

Last week, local media outlets reported the closing of Berwick Hospital, shocking healthcare workers there who had not been informed of plans to close the community's only emergency care facility by its owner, Fayette Holdings

"We know just how crucial these mental health services are to this community, " said Sarah Panattieri Cipriano, an RN at the hospital. "Closing our hospital will have devastating effects for people who are suffering and in crisis."

Union caregivers at First Hospital will be meeting this week to discuss possible next steps and hope to meet with CHS representatives shortly thereafter.

Commonwealth Health comments

Annmarie Poslock, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Commonwealth Health, offered comments on Thursday news conference:

"The employees at First Hospital have provided excellent care for their patients over the years. Current employees will be encouraged to apply for any open positions for which they are qualified across Commonwealth Health. We hope that many of these valued employees will remain with our health system.

"We remain committed to an orderly transition that provides for the safe discharge or placement for all patients before Oct. 30."

A parent offers her concerns

Jennifer Mickle-Symons of Larksville has a son, 17, who is served by First Hospital. She said the only option she is aware of is in Tunkhannock, a far drive away.

Of First Hospital, Mickle-Symons said, "This is the last chance for these patients. Where will they go? Mental health patients and their families are in a downward spiral. There are no providers left in Luzerne County. Something needs to be done. This closing takes away their lifeline."

Reach Bill O'Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.