CAPITAL REGION, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Schenectady County legislators and activists say they’re not entirely convinced merging Ellis Hospital with St. Peter’s Health Partners is in their community’s best interest. The two healthcare organizations announced in October plans to possibly integrate.

“When I hear news like that, it’s always what are we going to do? What’s going to happen to a whole bunch of people?” asks Arthur Butler, the executive director of the Schenectady County Human Rights Commission.

Community leaders hosted a virtual public forum Thursday night, educating the public what joining the two health systems together might mean. St. Peter’s is a member of the Trinity Health system — a Catholic healthcare organization. These religious medical groups are subject to rules from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, a document revised and distributed to religious medical institutions every year, passages mention aversion to reproductive care, such as fertility treatments and sterilization.

“For example, most Catholic hospitals are not allowed to provide postpartum tubal ligations,” explains Community Catalyst’s Women’s Health Program Director Lois Uttley.

“Bellevue is a tremendous resource, not only in Schenectady County, but for the whole Capital District. To have Bellevue Woman’s Hospital suddenly restricted by religious health doctrine, that’s not something to be desired. There has to be some way around that.”

“The conversation really should be about medical care. It should be between the patient and the physician instead of a committee that talks about religious restrictions that perhaps the patients don’t believe in,” says Schenectady County Legislator Michelle Ostrelich.

Catholic ethical directives also limit end-of-life care and LGBTQ+ services.

“We look at just hormone therapy for our trans population. It takes the community who has built up a trust to going and getting the services that are safe to them, and now sending them back underground when they see those services may be stripped from them,” Butler explains in a Zoom call with NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

Ostrelich says there are many low income families in the region who may not have the means to travel to nondenominational hospitals in Albany or Saratoga.

“There are a lot of barriers they already face here locally, but now to have to face travel and cost and really going to a community they’re not familiar with, would be a significant impact,” she says.

Butler echoes her concerns and asks how impoverished Black and brown communities will be considered and their access to care.

“The buzzword now is equity and for a group of people where for them, that word has not really meant a whole lot — we’ve always been at the tail end of the stick — then yes, I’m very concerned about what will happen with the community. If it’s going to be replaced and if others are coming in, do they know the community that they’re coming into?” he asks.

Osterlich says unfortunately, New York State law currently doesn’t require health mergers consider equal access to all services. However, the hospitals must first file a Certificate of Need Application with the NYS Department of Health and that requires public discussion periods organized by the Public Health and Health Planning Council.

“I think we need to hear a good case from the hospital executives on what would be the benefits and what are the risks,” says Uttley.

Of course, the New York Capital Region is no stranger to healthcare mergers. For example, Albany Medical Center also comprises Columbia Memorial Health, Glens Falls Hospital, and Saratoga Hospital.

Ellis Hospital is already a coalition between the former St. Clare’s Hospital, as well as Bellevue. St. Peter’s Health Partners already includes Albany Memorial Hospital, St. Mary’s Hospital, St. Peter’s Hospital, Samaritan Hospital, Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital, and The Eddy.

However, an even further dwindling in the market is another major concern.

“You would go from three major competing health systems to only two, and even when there are no Catholic ideologies involved, hospital mergers often result in downsizing or closing services in one or more of the communities, and those are profit based decisions,” says Uttley.

“Our dental program has already been decided to be eliminated, which is significant because it serves mostly Medicaid and uninsured, low-income families. We’ve also learned that the emergency department is going to be outsourced to a private equity firm that is profit driven. That could have a significant impact on low income families because they’re aggressive in over billing and aggressively collecting. They have also let us know publicly that the visiting nurse service will be eliminated, although all the patients will be transferred to new providers,” explains Osterlich. “We don’t know if the merger is a contributing factor to those cuts or not.”

However, she does not deny there are benefits to a merger and the services already provided to the Schenectady County community through St. Peter’s Health Partners.

“Saint Peters is well known for its community benefits. They do come in and focus on the needs of the community in which they are situated, and we appreciate that. There’s also other alignments. We’ve got Sunnyview rehab here, which is a St. Peter’s Health partners, as well as our cardiology group. There are benefits to a larger system, both financially and with ties to our community,” Osterlich says.

“Our best work is done through conversation. My hope would be that they hear how it’s going to impact the community and that they make some adjustments,” Butler also adds.

A representative from Ellis Hospital provided a written statement, which reads:

Ellis Medicine looks forward to hearing the perspectives shared by our patients and community members at this evening’s online forum hosted by a Schenectady citizens group. This forum is a welcome part of an ongoing dialogue, and we will continue to engage the community as our affiliation process unfolds.

St. Peter’s and Ellis recognize concerns that have been expressed around health care access. We do want to emphasize for our community 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 more and even better care as a result of this partnership.

The details of a final agreement are still being explored as part of our ongoing due diligence, and we are grateful for the opportunity to hear from the public at this early stage. We also look forward to educating the community in the coming months as more definitive details emerge from our discussions.

A Saint Peter’s representative says they also echo the same statement. On the topic of program cuts, Ellis Hospital maintains those mentioned by Osterlich have no connection to the proposed merger. Cuts to the visiting nurse service are reportedly due to “an era of declining government reimbursements that don’t cover the true cost of care”, as stated in the announcement back in December.

The representative says there is a proposed collaboration with Hometown Health Centers in Schenectady and Ellis Dental Care. Hometown Health would lease the current dental space on Ellis’ McClellan Street campus and take over the care of dental patients pending NYSDOH approval.

Ellis Hospital does not currently have news to share on outsourcing its emergency department.