By Susan Gonsalves, Contributing Writer
Westborough – An April 6 hearing moderated by the Department of Public Health offered the most extensive public discussion yet in an already complex debate over a proposed outpatient Mass General Brigham (MGB) care clinic in Westborough.
MGB wants to build its clinic, offering surgery, primary care, behavioral health, orthopedics, neurology, diagnostic imaging and other specialty care at 1400 West Park Dr., just off Route 9.
The Integrated Health Care of MGB is also planning two other outpatient centers in Woburn and Salem, N.H., in addition to an expansion effort at its existing Westwood facility. In Westborough, MGB’s proposal is currently in the “determination of need phase” at the state level.
Broad field of callers join DPH hearing
The majority of callers April 6 represented UMass Memorial Health Care, its medical center and Marlborough Hospital, as well as imaging facilities such as Shields MRI in Worcester, which also has an outpatient surgery center in Shrewsbury.
Other participants included legislators, representatives of nursing, construction and other unions, local human services organizations as well as some local patients who currently travel to Boston for care.
MGB makes expanded case for clinic
Making the case for his organization and its efforts, John Fernandez, president of MGB’s Integrated Health Care and Mass Eye and Ear, discussed the benefits of having comprehensive mental and physical health care services under one roof.
He explained that MGB currently has 42,000 patients within a 20-mile radius of this Westborough site and noted that because this clinic would not be a hospital setting, costs would be lower than at other facilities even within the MGB network.
That directly addressed a concern raised before this hearing took place when UMass Memorial Executives told the Marlborough City Council they feared MGB could drive up the overall cost of care in the region by posting high prices for services.
Collectively, Fernandez added, this expansion project would bring 1,000 construction and health care jobs to the three sites across the state. Roughly 300 of those would be in Westborough.
“We’re steadfast in our resolve to put patients at the center of our decision-making,” Fernandez said.
UMass continues opposition to clinic
On the UMass side of things, the majority of callers against this proposal discussed those aforementioned concerns about the cost of health care. They also worried this facility could threaten the sustainability of UMass’ hospitals, as well as its medical school in Worcester.
Several speakers said the presence of a Westborough facility would further expand existing inequities and separate the “haves” from the “have-nots.” They elaborated, explaining they feared MGB would cater to higher-income people while leaving low-income individuals and people of color behind.
That could damage UMass, speakers like Worcester District 4 City Councilor Sarai Rivera said, because as a “safety net” hospital, UMass only makes 60 to 65 cents out of each dollar of treatment given to uninsured, Medicaid or Medicare patients.
UMass makes the money up thanks to patients with commercial insurers who pay at higher rates. But hospital executives worry this MGB site could pull those patients away.
John Kelly, Chief Operating Officer at Marlborough Hospital, said many of the proposed services at MGB’s clinic would be identical to what is already offered in the area. That would mean UMass and MGB would suddenly start competing for both patients and health care workers, he said.
Eric Dickson, President and CEO of UMass Memorial Health Care, questioned the location of the proposed sites across the state, among other things, noting, “It basically amounts to cherry-picking at the expense of poor and underserved populations and communities of color in central Massachusetts.”
Westborough residents offer support to MGB
As UMass voices spoke at length, the project did have its own supporters outside of MGB staff.
Westborough Board of Selectmen Chairman Allen Edinberg discussed a possible economic boost this would give to the town. He also praised the convenience it would offer people who now travel to Boston for care.
Westborough resident Candace Roderick echoed similar arguments, describing her family’s trips to Boston for care at Tufts Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital and Mass General Brigham as they sought treatment for her daughter’s brain tumor and stroke.
She said it would save a lot of time and money and be great to have the therapy and specialty services in their own community.
“We need MGB to come to Westborough,” she said, adding that opponents to the project should “come and travel with us…Live our life for a month, and you’d be on my side.”
Tom Sequist, Chief Patient Experience and Equity Officer at MGB, took issue with comments that the outpatient center would increase inequities and make access difficult for people of color.
Describing himself as an “American Indian physician,” he said MGB is committed to diversity and anti-racism and is “working to reimagine the patient experience” for all people with “dignity, equity and clinical excellence.”
Callers April 6 collectively expressed a need for more input while calling for an unbiased cost analysis before this proposal moves any further.