Plan to reopen Pascack Valley Hospital draws supportive crowd in Bergen

More than 1,100 Bergen County residents, officials and doctors packed a hearing in Washington Township on Wednesday night to support Hackensack University Medical Center‘s plans to reopen Westwood’s Pascack Valley Hospital, which went bankrupt and shut down in 2007.

More than 1,100 Bergen County residents, officials and doctors packed a hearing in Washington Township on Wednesday night to support Hackensack University Medical Center‘s plans to reopen Westwood’s Pascack Valley Hospital, which went bankrupt and shut down in 2007.

Representatives from Valley Hospital, in Ridgewood, and Englewood Hospital and Medical Center — which have tried unsuccessfully to block the reopening of Pascack Valley in court, on the grounds there is a surplus of hospital beds in Bergen County and losing patients to Pascack Valley would weaken them financially — were the only voices raised in opposition to Hackensack UMC’s plan.

Hackensack UMC at Pascack Valley would be a for-profit joint venture between Hackensack and LHP Hospital Partners Inc., of Plano, Texas. As a for-profit, it would pay taxes that Westwood Mayor John Birkner estimated at about $1 million a year. “It is dependent on the valuation of the property, and that changes once there is a fully functioning hospital on that site. We do expect a number approaching $1 million, or potentially more,” Birkner said.

The state Health Planning Board convened the hearing, and is expected to issue a recommendation at its Nov. 3 meeting, after which state Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd has 90 days to issue a decision. Valley and Englewood officials have said they expect the hospital to be approved, and will continue to fight it in court. Gov. Chris Christie expressed support for the hospital during his campaign.

Volunteers with several local rescue squads said the closing of Pascack Valley significantly increased the amount of time required to drive across heavily congested Bergen County to transport patients to other hospitals. They argued that the added time isn’t good for the patients, and may also discourage volunteers from serving.

Milton Kohlmann, secretary treasurer of the Pascack Valley Volunteer Ambulance Association, said it’s not unusual for EMTs to “wait in a hospital for 20 to 30 minutes for a spot to open so our present patient can be accepted by the staff. Although there may be empty beds in local hospitals, there seems to be difficulty moving patients expeditiously from the emergency department to those beds.”

Valley and Englewood have repeatedly argued that while the residents of the 14 towns in the Pascack Valley region would clearly prefer their own hospital, the state’s hospital certificate of need law requires the health commissioner to consider whether the extra beds are needed, and whether a new hospital will harm existing ones.

“Overall, the New Jersey hospital industry is in deep trouble,” said Michael Pietrowicz, vice president of planning for Englewood. “Since 1992, more than 20 hospitals have closed. That’s more than one every year. The reasons for this crisis have been identified by many experts: too many beds for too few patients, and not enough money.”

Hackensack CEO Robert Garrett told the hearing that the new hospital, at 128 beds, will be less than half the size of the former Pascack Valley, and will be privately financed: “No money will be diverted away from other essential hospital projects throughout the state, and no public dollars will be used to complete this project.”

Beth Fitzgerald

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