News & Events

The Republican: Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton to be sold to bigger health care organization

Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton to be sold to bigger health care organization

Published: Wednesday, August 24, 2011, 3:35 PM     Updated: Wednesday, August 24, 2011, 8:29 PM

By Fred Contrada, The Republican


The Republican file photoCooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton is in discussions with three larger health care organizations about a merger.

NORTHAMPTON – Cooley Dickinson Hospital expects to merge with a larger health care organization that would, in effect, become the hospital’s new owner.

Hospital officials said Wednesday that they are in active discussions with Baystate Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital and Vanguard Health Systems, a Tennessee-based organization, about such a merger. Cooley Dickinson’s board of trustees expects to announce its final decision at the end of November, according to Diane Cutillo, the hospital’s senior director of public affairs.

“A clinical affiliation is no longer enough to meet the changes demands of the health care system,” Cutillo said. “We’re looking at a relationship in which a larger partner becomes an owner.”

Although she did not go into detail, Cutillo said, “With the changes in the health care financing system, we are not large enough to survive as a stand-alone entity.”

Cooley Dickinson had previously entered into an affiliation with the New Hampshire-based Dartmouth-Hitchcock Alliance, but ended that relationship in 2008. Last year it began talking about another such arrangement. Baystate and Massachusetts General Hospital were both mentioned in that discussion, along with the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester.

The previous partnerships were touted as money-saving moves that would give Cooley Dickinson greater buying power and help it expand its services. There has never before been mention of the hospital being sold.

Cutillo said Cooley Dickinson is presently a self-owned entity. She would not venture an estimate of its worth. Merger discussions are in the preliminary stages, she said. Among the issues yet to be determined are if the current administration will remain in place and how many of the present employees will remain at Cooley Dickinson. However, Cutillo said Cooley Dickinson is bargaining from a position of strength.

“One of the board’s criteria is that there be a robust health care system here,” she said.

Jane S. Albert, spokeswoman for Baystate Health, acknowledged that her organization is in discussions with Cooley Dickinson.

“They had approached us,” she said. “We have been talking with them for months.”

Baystate Health is the parent organization of Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Baystate Mary Lane in Ware and Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield. It also owns Health New England, a Springfield-based health insurer.

Albert said she doesn’t yet know what the exact nature of Baystate’s relationship with Cooley Dickinson could be, but it stands to reason the outcome could be similar to Baystate Franklin or Baystate Mary Lane.

“It’s too premature to talk about that. These are negotiations and discussions,” Albert said. “For us its really an opportunity to bring the highest quality of care to people in the region.”

Among those nervous about the move are the hospital’s registered nurses, who picketed outside the facility Wednesday to publicize their contract demands. Their current contract expired in January but has been extended. Patti Williams, a Massachusetts Nurses Association representative who is taking part in the negotiating, said one of the sticking points is a successor clause that would ensure that any agreement with the current administration remain in place under new owners.

Cutillo said Cooley Dickinson has agreed to include the clause provided the union accepts its offer concerning pension benefits. Registered nurses have defined benefit pensions that guarantee them a certain amount based on their earnings. The hospital has offered to let them keep those benefits but wants to enroll new nurses in a different plan in which the hospital would match employee contributions. The union turned the deal down.

“We have to fight for ourselves but also for the people who come behind us,” Williams said.

Cutillo noted that the successor language would lock the new owner into the rest of the contract.

“We’re committing a future owner to the terms of that contract,” she said.

Vanguard Health Systems operates facilities in Texas, Illinois, Arizona and Michigan. In Massachusetts, it operates St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester and MetroWest hospitals in Framingham and Natick.

Staff business reporter Jim Kinney contributed to this report