Finally, Upstate, Crouse invites CNY into merger discussion (Editorial Board Opinion)

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After months of “radio silence,” SUNY Upstate Medical University will hold two public forums later this month to explain why it wants to acquire Crouse Hospital. We applaud this long overdue step to inform Central New Yorkers about a deal that, if completed, will reshape how we get our healthcare for years to come.

The announced in April they are linking up to create a hospital system controlling 71% of admissions in Syracuse and $2.3 billion in annual revenue. The merger will have a direct impact on 13,000 employees and many more thousands of patients who rely on the hospitals for routine family medical care, cancer and heart attack treatment, and delivering our babies.

Up to now, the public has had extraordinarily little say in the matter. Upstate and Crouse have not revealed any financial details of the transaction or explained its impact on the vital services they provide.

Lawyers had advised hospital officials to stay mum while the state Department of Health considers their merger. That’s not the posture we expect from a taxpayer-funded state entity. We’re glad to see Upstate has recognized it owes the community more transparency about this momentous deal.

The state’s takeover of a private hospital will leave Central New Yorkers with only one other hospital system to choose from, St. Joseph’s Health. Upstate acquired Community General Hospital a decade ago.

We have many questions about how the merger will affect healthcare quality; access to care; cost to patients and insurers; the range of services that will be offered locally; employment; medical education; and, ultimately, state taxpayers.

Health policy experts have raised these and many other issues in a stream of stories by staff writer James T. Mulder. They and officials elected also have questioned the need for so much secrecy surrounding the merger. We compete. More transparency is needed.

The experts quoted in our coverage largely agree that a merger with Upstate would stabilize Crouse’s precarious finances. Crouse lost $12 million between 2016 and 2018 and asked the federal government to take over its underfunded pension plan. Crouse’s $9 million surplus in 2020 was due to an infusion of pandemic relief money.

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The merger might be a good idea for other reasons, too. Gold, ace critics charge, it could reduce patient choice, raise prices and eliminate jobs due to efficiencies of scale. It’s impossible to judge in an information vacuum. The public forums are a start in filling that void. We urge stakeholders to take advantage of this opportunity to participate.

Believe it or not, public hearings are not required when hospitals merge (though nothing prevents it). To remedy this lack of transparency, the state Legislature passed a law this past session that requires hospitals proposing mergers to obtain independent assessments showing how the changes will affect low-income, racial and ethnic minorities and other vulnerable consumers. The law doesn’t take effect until next summer — likely after this deal is done.

Central New Yorkers need public scrutiny of the Upstate-Crouse merger now. And now they’ll get some.

There may be more to know. On behalf of you, our readers, Syracuse.com/The Post-Standard has asked to see the certificate of need Upstate filed with the state Health Department explaining the rationale for the merger. We also want to see the “Certificate of Public Advantage” application to the state. If granted, the COPA would shield the merger from federal antitrust scrutiny.

Upstate has said it needs more time to respond to our Freedom of Information Law requests. We urge hospital officials to release the documents to allow for a more informed and robust community discussion of the hospital merger proposal.

Disclosure: Tim Kennedy, president of Advance Media New York, the parent company of The Post-Standard and syracuse,com, serves on the board of directors of Crouse Health. He did not participate in the drafting or approval of this editorial.

About Syracuse.com editorials

Editorials represent the collective opinion of the Advance Media New York editorial board. Our opinions are independent of news coverage. Read our mission statement. Members of the editorial board are Tim Kennedy, Trish LaMonte, Katrina Tulloch and Marie Morelli.

To respond to this editorial: Submit a letter or commentary to letters@syracuse.com. Read our submission guidelines.

If you have questions about the Opinions & Editorials section, contact Marie Morelli, editorial/opinion lead, at mmorelli@syracuse.com

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