June 16, 2009

Hospital hypocrisy

Does anyone else find irony in a company that brings for-profit capitalism to healthcare complaining about "unfair competition" if another institution invades what it considers its monopoly-protected turf?

MetroWest Medical Center is owned by Vanguard Health Systems, a multi-billion-dollar company that turned a $16 million profit from the (continuing) operations of 15 hospitals around the country in the last quarter. Vanguard Health Systems' Web site boasts that the company brings "the business acumen of a privately owned organization" and "the strengths of a for-profit corporation" to its hospitals (although good luck finding anything about that on the MetroWest hospitals' own site).

You can't have it both ways. You can't take advantage of free-market capitalism to earn a profit for investors from treating people's injuries and illnesses, and then complain about competition.

Framingham Union executives are incensed that another hospital has the nerve to want to open an orthopedic center in town. They decry the idea that a nearby medical outfit might poach some of "their" most profitable patients. Apparently by living in Framingham, by rights we "belong" to MetroWest Medical Center - even thought it takes a grand total of 6 minutes longer to drive to Newton-Wellesley Hospital from my Framingham office than to Framingham Union.

To further ping the hypocrisy meter, MetroWest Medical executives make their argument even as they expand their physical therapy services into Franklin. That's not poaching patients who logically "belong" to Milford Regional Medical Center? It's OK to do so for certain medical services but not others? It all depends on not what's best for patients, but what's most profitable for them?

MetroWest Medical launched a heavy lobbying campaign against Newton-Wellesley's project, including robocalling local residents urging us to come out and oppose the Newton-Wellesley outpatient orthopedic surgical center. (Aside: Yes, I know that anyone can legally call me with a political spiel even though I'm on the "do-not-call" list, since do-not-call only covers commercial messages. However, I'm on the list because I DO NOT WANT TO BE CALLED. Violating those wishes by interrupting my Friday evening dinner is unlikely to make more receptive to your message.)

That didn't work, and the Planning Board approved the outpatient center. So MetroWest Medical Center is appealing to the state for protection. Apparently the Planning Board's mandate to protect public health is supposed to include protecting MetroWest Medical Center. They don't see anything odd about a for-profit institution defining protection as preventing competition.

In my ideal world, the former CompUSA site on Rte. 30 would feature retail on the ground floor and any medical use on an upper floor. The old CompUSA was the lone retail outlet (besides an auto dealer) that could be safely walked to, on a route with all sidewalks and no dangerous intersections, for hundreds of office workers along Speen Street and the Leggatt-McCall connector. I wish our zoning code was more protective of the few walkable retail centers in town and promoted only uses in such areas that people would like to regularly head to on foot. A car dealer isn't something that helps create synergy in a pedestrian-friendly shopping district, nor is a surgical center: Neither is a destination that a lot of people are likely to visit regularly.

However, that's not the zoning philosophy we have in town. And even I've got to admit that the odds of another retail outlet wanting to open in that location anytime soon are rather slim. Keeping a vacant stand-alone building at exit 13 off the Turnpike doesn't help the rest of the Rte. 30/Rte. 9 commercial district. So, opposing the surgical center in hopes of a better commercial use would likely risk a long-time empty structure turning into an eyesore.

That same risk applies if the surgical center is turned down in order to protect Vanguard Health Systems' perceived monopoly in town.

Certainly, Framingham Union Hospital is an important employer and service for downtown Framingham. But that still doesn't make it right to ask the government to create a non-compete protected service area for an investor-owned, for-profit corporation. Newton-Wellesley's medical center plan should go forward.

Alas, I guess it's too late to ask them to add, say, a public cafe into the mix....


  1. I couldn't agree more!!!!!!! You said it all so perfectly. Maybe the town of Framingham will wake up one day. On the other hand, that's not gonna happen. They would rather have empty buildings. The question is- did anyone interview the building's abutters? I am pretty sure Barmakian's and Midway Nissan were thrilled about the prospect of having NWH next door. Just think of all the patients dropping off family members for a colonoscopy for 3 hours and then shopping for a car or some jewelry!!! I bet they aren't happy now that NWH was bullied into withdrawing its application. Sigh.

  2. Sharon: Excellent points, and ones I embrace entirely. I for one am extremely disappointed in this result...basically, the Town has decided to give MWMC a monopoly on medical services in the town. Disgusting.

  3. Right on! We're back to having one major retail medium-box store empty, joining former Filene's Basement and Natick/Framingham line former Circuit City and Shopper's World former Linen's & Things...and soon close to 10 percent of the Natick Mall "Collection". Milford could have waged the same kind of campaign against MWMC but didn't and I for one really appreciate an option for services. Even an ER. Might that have cut wait times? Framingham won't let CVS or Walgreen's get their Minute Clinic (not sure of the name of the Walgreen's version sitting mostly complete without an occupancy permit) open for competition. We will fight everything for the sake of trying to get 1950s Framingham back all the while we will get to pay more and more for health care and related services. And we get to wait for many hours in the ER and for X-ray and ultrasound services. Why do we do this to ourselves?

  4. I totally concur with your thoughts. The behavior of the Metrowest CEO has been appalling. He doesn't have the good health of the patients as his agenda, it's the bottom line profit that he's responsible for.

    Other good questions are raised in this blog: