By Mark Scheer

Mental health employees at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center suggested this week that the decision to close their behavioral unit had more to do with attention seeking on the part of management than with genuine concerns about its financial performance.

In a guest view delivered to the Niagara Gazette on Friday, several members of the soon-to-be-shuttered Bridges Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Unit claim the hospital’s Chief Executive Officer Joseph Ruffolo admitted to them during a recent meeting that their 12-bed unit was not scheduled for closure because too many clients lacked insurance, but rather because closing it represented “the best way to get media attention.”

While the hospital’s top administrator characterized the staff’s accusations as “totally inaccurate,” employees say he’s wrong to continue to assert that the unit had to close due to insufficient reimbursement from Medicaid and lack of medical coverage for patients because most of the children they see are adequately insured.

“What kind of leadership is it when the CEO of a community hospital uses emotionally challenged children as pawns in order to get attention?” charges the guest editorial which was undersigned by nine Bridges staff members. “The patients and their families, as well as the staff affected by the hospital administration’s actions deserve to have their questions answered honestly. Instead, their concerns are addressed with rhetoric and stonewalling that is appalling.”

Bridges has been serving children with mental and behavioral problems and their families since 1993. It is the only child and adolescent unit of its kind in Niagara County and serves as the lone care center for mentally ill children in Orleans County. Members of the hospital’s Board of Directors voted earlier this year to begin closure proceedings in an effort to close an estimated $2.4 million funding gap related to behavioral services for children and adults. The unit’s 34 employees received layoff notices Feb. 1. Staff members are now preparing for the unit to officially close on May 2.

Ruffolo characterized the unit’s closure as a “sad” situation, but said the cost of offering the service has proved far too expensive for an independent hospital like Memorial to maintain.

“Unfortunately, the cost per child that we cared for was far greater than the payment system that is in place,” he said.

Ruffolo denied ever saying that the move was more of a publicity stunt than a sound business decision.

“We’ve never said that we are going to close the Bridges unit to attract media attention,” he said.

Staff members want to know what will be done with their space once they are gone and why a planned expansion of the unit was halted. They also take to task the handling of the situation by members of the board of directors and, in particular, Board Chairman Don King. Staff members suggest that hospital leaders have not been completely forthcoming with information about the true nature of the hospital’s financial condition, both today and months ago when they reported surpluses and told the community the facility was on strong financial footing. The staff members call on residents in the county to contact their local elected officials and Ruffolo himself to voice their displeasure with plans to close the unit.

“Is it going to take the tragic death by suicide of an emotionally fragile child to wake up the community?” ask the staff members in their guest view. “Where is the outrage at the cavalier manner in which the administration of Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center is treating the most fragile of our children?”

At this point, Ruffolo admitted that he saw no chance of the unit staying open beyond May 2. He said the hospital is now working with state health officials on a closure plan for the Bridges unit and is currently in talks with representatives from the Erie County Medical Center and BryLin Hospital in Buffalo as possible service alternatives for children in need.

Ruffolo said management is now focused on maintaining its other branch of behavioral services, a

54-bed unit dedicated to adults with psychiatric concerns. At the request of state health officials, hospital board members have delayed action on a proposed closure of the

adult unit which employs 141 people.

He said help with Medicaid processing from the Niagara County Department of Social Services has resulted in positive benefits for the hospital and that management is continuing to make changes in house to overcome its financial challenges. Ruffolo said there is no plan for a bailout from either state or local sources.

“We are not going to be depending on anybody to help us out,” Ruffolo said.

“It will take time, but we are going to begin to come out of it,” he added.

Contact reporter Mark Scheer

at 282-2311, ext. 2250.

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