Council Can’t Defend a Bad Deal

The public’s message to city council is clear. Nearly 80% of the public comments that stretched Monday evening’s meeting for three and one-half hours were opposed to the new “Master Agreement” to close Lakewood Hospital and hand city assets over to Cleveland Clinic.

Council members, by contrast, tied themselves into rhetorical knots trying to defend the indefensible.

The most revealing example may be Councilman Tom Bullock’s assertion that “Some times your choices are between two bad… I think that’s what we’re in here.” This summarized a theme repeated throughout the evening, that council is trying to deal with “reality” and that an imperfect deal with Cleveland Clinic is better than an alternative of a bankrupt hospital. As one public speaker after another pointed out, however, the two bad choices proposed by Mr. Bullock are a false reality created by Council; city officials have not only failed to make a sincere pursuit of alternatives, but have recently refused even to engage with one alternative that has actively sought them out.

Councilman David Anderson claimed that “we cannot compel LHA to reopen the process” to contact alternative hospital systems, and Councilman Shawn Juris insisted that city officials “don’t have a direct obligation, or a way to compel a health care provider to provide services.” Yet this is blatantly contradicted by council’s own repeated statements.

In May, Council vice president Ryan Nowlin wrote—in a letter actively soliciting information from Metrohealth—that “City council is perfectly free to consider any proposals regarding the future of healthcare in Lakewood, and indeed we are obligated to do so as community stewards if such a proposal is presented.” During Monday’s meeting, Councilman Bullock stated that “If the Tennessee group [Surgical Development Partners] makes a concrete proposal” he would be interested in talking to them; meanwhile the repeated references by every member of council to “negotiations” with Cleveland Clinic confirm that council not only has more leverage than Mr. Anderson proposed, but has also applied a double-standard in exempting Cleveland Clinic from the demands it would apply to Surgical Development Partners.

Again and again, members of the public called on council to drop its Clinic-or-nothing stance and invite participation by SDP and other potential partners (such as Mercy Health, which is currently pursuing expansion into Northeast Ohio). Councilman Bullock protested what he characterized as an assumption that an SDP offer would be superior. When Mr. Bullock continued by declaring “I don’t know that we know that,” however, he once more demonstrated the entire point he was attempting to rebut: council does not know because it has not attempted to find out, and should do so. (Particularly given the fact that SDP’s initial offer for Lakewood Hospital’s Columbia Road property was nearly $1 million greater than the Clinic’s presumably final offer—which certainly suggests potential for a superior outcome for the hospital itself.)

If council appeared confused, however, another of the evening’s gaffes may provide further explanation. Over the past week, members have boasted endlessly of their exhaustive research over 11 months; Council President Mary Louise Madigan insisted that “we have done our homework” and that “this [15-day drive to enact a massive policy decision right before two lame-duck members leave council] “has not been rushed.” Councilwoman Cindy Marx even complained, Monday evening, that it’s “not fair to us” to question council’s diligence. Despite which, when a representative of Save Lakewood Hospital asked Ms. Madigan to call for a show of hands from all council members who have read the entire 95-page Master Agreement… Madigan’s entire response was “no.”

Under these circumstances, it seems more than fair to end with a quote from Finance Director Jennifer Pae. Though it may be assumed—absent any statement otherwise from Ms. Pae—that she simply misspoke, it seems more than likely that she too was being unintentionally revealing when she said “What was negotiated is not what’s going to happen.”

Lakewood can only hope that this forecast proves accurate because what was negotiated will be rejected, rather than because Cleveland Clinic will be invited to selectively honor whatever obligations it wishes to, just as it has done with the last agreement.