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Caritas President and CEO Ralph de la Torre speaks to employees of Holy Family Hospital about Cerberus Capital Management acquiring the hospital.

METHUEN — The head of Caritas Christi Health Care yesterday told employees of Holy Family Hospital that their jobs and pensions will be safe under new owners and that millions will be spent to modernize facilities and possibly buy more hospitals.

"Two years ago, there was a real concern Caritas wasn't going to survive," CEO Ralph de la Torre said in an interview with The Eagle-Tribune after a meeting with about 300 of the hospital's 1,500 employees. "Now, not only is it going to survive, but it's going to grow."

Last week, de la Torre announced that Caritas reached an agreement with Cerberus Capital Management of New York to sell the six-hospital chain for about $850 million.

The deal must still be approved by state regulators and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. In addition to Holy Family, Caritas also operates hospitals in Boston, Brockton, Fall River and Norwood.

Yesterday, construction workers were already putting up chain-link fences and erecting signs around the exterior Holy Family at 70 East St. in anticipation of breaking ground on a 24,000-square-foot, $21 million emergency department.

Also in the works at Holy Family are roof repairs, renovations of the Women's Center, development of a new Women's Imaging Center, expansion of the pediatric health center, renovation of St. Theresa's Hall and purchase of a new CT scanner - an investment of about $12 million.

The work is all part of a $100 million capital plan being implemented at the six Caritas hospitals in Massachusetts in anticipation of the Cerberus deal.

De la Torre explained that the hospital board of directors knew the improvements were needed regardless of whether the deal is approved, and that Holy Family is ready to borrow to pay for the improvements if for some reason the deal falls through.

Expansion plans

That's not something he expects, however, noting that the deal could also lead to an expansion of the chain.

Director of Nursing Cheryl Edwards said she asked de la Torre if the deal would lead to the company acquiring more hospitals.

Asked during the interview with The Eagle-Tribune if the company would target hospitals like Lawrence General, less than a mile away in Lawrence, he demurred, but said he is a friend of the new CEO there and was looking forward to partnerships with surrounding hospitals.

"We don't have targets," de la Torre said.

"We will work with them as partners up to them becoming part of our system."

Edwards said after the employee meeting that workers at the hospital are happy with the potential buyout.

"This is a very positive thing," she said. "We are thrilled. It's wonderful."

She said she never really doubted that Holy Family and Caritas would survive but that employees were adept at doing more with less."We got good at managing things," she said.

"Now, there will be money to do the things we need to do, and an opportunity to do better things for our patients."

New emergency department

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary is the emergency department, where about 70 staff members and 15 doctors labor in a circular suite of offices built in the 1970s when that kind of design was cutting-edge.

Now, the "emergency room in the round" has been proven to be inefficient and awkward, at best. Meanwhile, emergency room visits have skyrocketed from 25,000 a year when the ED was built to more than 40,000 today.

The 14,000-square-foot department has just a half-dozen private rooms and about a dozen semi-private rooms, as well as more public "fast-track rooms" where multiple patients are cared for at the same time.

The limited space has led to long wait times for ED patients, something the new facility will alleviate, said Dr. Steven Crespo, the head of the department.

"The biggest problems are lack of privacy and not enough rooms," he said.

Gregory Christie, the director of emergency services, echoed comments made by Edwards saying, "We've been very resourceful with very little capital. We got good at moving furniture around the room."

The new, 24,000-square-foot facility will include 34 private rooms, a double-trauma room and a new CT scanner on the same floor as the ED.

"With the new rooms, we'll be able to do anything in them," said emergency department nurse manager Joanne McNulty. "It will cut down on waiting times. And we won't have to shuffle patients around."

Crespo and others in the emergency department hope that the new facility will also eventually lead to the hospital's redesignation as a Level 3 trauma center, a designation taken away last year due to lack of an adequate number of trauma surgeons.

"We need more surgeons," Crespo said, adding that it's unclear whether the new facility will lead to the redesignation. It could, however, lead to an increase in staff at the hospital.

Overall, the hospital should see significant job growth and creation as a result of the infusion of cash from Cerberus. According to estimates put out by Caritas and Cerberus, more than 4,000 jobs will be created as a result of the construction projects going on at the six hospitals around the state.

Catholic origins intact

Many staff members were heartened to hear that the new ownership will continue to run the hospitals in accordance with the religious and moral roots that have set it apart from other hospitals.

Holy Family will retain its chapel and outdoor reflection garden, as well as some of the small touches that make working there special, including a daily, 8 a.m. prayer read over the loudspeaker by one of the hospital nuns.

Or, the moment of reflection at the start of meetings, during which leaders will read an uplifting poem, a quote or even a short prayer, putting participants in the right frame of mind — to think first about the patients they are treating.

"It's a unique way of doing things," Christie said. "It's a demonstration of who we are."

Crespo agreed.

"It's a big comfort to employees that that's not going away," he said. "That's huge here."

Under the terms of the agreement with Cerberus, the management company isn't allowed to sell the hospital chain or take it public for at least three years.

De la Torre said Cerberus is likely to hold onto the chain for much longer, particularly since universal health care may make owning low-cost, community hospitals more profitable.

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