SCHENECTADY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Leaders at both Ellis Medicine and St. Peter’s Health Partners promised in March any potential merger between the two would need years before changes could go through. That’s why Schenectady County Legislature Member Michelle Ostrelich says she was so shocked this week to learn several negotiations are already on the table.

“I was surprised. We understand them continuing to align, we just were caught off guard because they had told us things were on hold,” Ostrelich explains in a Zoom interview with NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

Ostrelich leads a coalition of community members and advocates who say they’re worried the only hospital in the county could be taken over by St. Peter’s parent company, Trinity Health. The healthcare organization follows U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops guidelines which limits medical services that don’t align with Catholic faith.

“Our community’s priorities, specifically relief from religious restrictions, isn’t being negotiated at this stage,” Ostrelich explains. “For you or I, driving 30 minutes, 40 minutes to Albany Med or Saratoga might be easy, but for others in our community who may rely on public transport or don’t have a car, traveling somewhere else to get the care they need is impossible.”

She says Ellis Medicine President and CEO Paul Milton has been very forthcoming and that he confirmed to her directly a physician agreement with St. Peter’s could become official within a few months and a management agreement is planned within the year.

NEWS10 can confirm Ellis Hospital will now contract ER physicians through Envision Physician Services — the same company St. Peter’s also utilizes. Ostrelich says she’s concerned patients will be hit with unexpected medical bills if they are treated in the ER by a private practice physician who operates outside their health insurance network. Ellis Hospital ER Crisis Nurse Fred Durocher says even when on the inside, staff are also in the dark.

“Some of the physicians that were here prior chose to leave and we’ve had some new physicians coming in,” Durocher admits of the partnership with Envision.

“You know, it makes you feel nervous, because you don’t know what’s going to get cut and they can do it in a way where it’s done before you’re able to voice a concern,” he further explains.

He says Ellis Hospital has closed its pediatric, hospice oncology, neurology inpatient, and geriatric units and scaled down the psychiatry ward. He says whether or not it’s to merge resources with St. Peter’s, management hasn’t told them anything.

“It was almost a year of denial that it wasn’t going to happen and then within a few months, the next thing you know it’s closed,” Durocher says. “Over the last 12 months, they’ve cut half the beds at Ellis, and I don’t know if that’s in preparation again for money, for profit to consolidate that.”

A definitive agreement to consolidate the two healthcare systems would require a Certificate of Need application, public comment period, and ultimate approval by New York State Department of Health. However, these smaller moves are able to go forward without any DOH procedure, Ostrelich says.

“We don’t have a process like we would with the Department of Health to offer our public comments. It seems to make sense that the further along they get informally without oversight, the harder it will be later for the state to say no,” she says.

“Ellis Hospital is the only hospital in Schenectady County. I think the community should have a huge say in what is done here,” Durocher says.

When asked about the physician and management arrangements, an Ellis Hospital representative responds to NEWS10:

The integration of Ellis Medicine and St. Peter’s Health Partners is a long and complex process that includes many steps and approvals along the way—in what may be a years-long process. In the immediate, we are exploring collaborative projects with St. Peter’s that would continue our long working relationship, and also aim to make a positive impact on our financial results and quality patient care. Details of these operational changes are still being explored.

We continue to listen to our community and work through the issues important to them.

Lastly, we want to emphasize that the intent of this proposed partnership is to enhance the availability of high-quality health care services in the Capital Region. In the end, we are confident the community will see both improved care and expanded access to care as a result of this partnership.

Ostrelich says she hopes the statement rings true, but without transparency on moves aligning the two systems, Schenectady residents have no guarantee things will move forward with their equity in mind.

“A lot of people in this community, even if they would be happy with a merger, just don’t know what is happening. They don’t know what has been done to protect us from religious restrictions that could be coming down the pipe, they don’t know what efforts have been made to protect Bellevue and women’s care,” Ostrelich says.

“When everybody doesn’t have access to good healthcare, we are all in trouble,” she adds.