Who Wants To Sell Their Hospital On The Auction Block?

January 29, 2008

          [Image: Auctioneer and assistants, Cheviot, Ohio, 2004, by Rick Dikeman]

         Less than three months ago, I wrote here (with reference to Boston\’s Carney Hospital) about the need for financially distressed hospitals to involve all stakeholders in a collaborative process in order to achieve the best overall result.  Now I see that two New Jersey hospitals have long since passed that moment of opportunity and find themselves up for auction in bankruptcy proceedings.  Yesterday, The Record reported that auctions were set for Pascack Valley and Barnert Hospitals.  Today, reports indicate that Barnert\’s fate awaits the outcome of further creditors\’ wrangling in the Bankruptcy Court, while one of the bidders for Pascack Valley  is seeking to delay the auction of that facility scheduled for February 4.
          It is hard to imagine that any of the “stakeholders” involved in the early days of a financially distressed hospital scenario would purposefully choose to resolve their common problem by way of an auction sale in Bankruptcy Court.  Such proceedings are intended and designed to yield the best result for the hospital\’s creditors.  Although the interests of other constituencies (the hospital\’s Board, employees, medical staff, patients and community) may be brought into play, the creditors (and more precisely, certain creditors) are driving the bus.  This is not inappropriate given the underlying purpose of the Bankruptcy Code to fairly allocate the debtor\’s assets among its creditors.  But it makes no sense for these other constituencies to get on this bus if they have any choice in the matter.
          They often do have that choice, but fail to seize the opportunity.  It occurs well before the “B” word is first openly discussed, but when leadership of the hospital knows (or should know) that the status quo cannot be maintained.  Once that moment passes, the options available to the stakeholders begin to diminish, little by little, until one day there is no choice but to close the doors and hold an auction.
          The recently released Final Report 2008 of the New Jersey Commission on Rationalizing Health Care Resources (a/k/a the “Reinhardt Commission Report”) addressed this problem to some extent by recommending (at Chapter 15, page 181) that state regulators create an “Early Warning System” to monitor and detect negative financial trends, and “to intervene at the level of hospital governance and management in a graduated fashion based on severity of financial problems and responsiveness of management.”  Although a laudable effort, my guess is that this process will in many cases come too late, and when it does, will put state regulators in the driver\’s seat. 
          The hospital\’s stakeholders need to do better.  They can, but only through exercise of  leadership that acknowledges the realities of the hospital\’s predicament, and moves beyond pointing fingers and posturing into a collaborative process to find a solution.