BRIDGTON — A citizens’ group says Central Maine Healthcare is failing the Lakes Region and it’s publicly calling for the health system to give up Bridgton Hospital and affiliated medical practices so they can be taken over by someone else.

The Pondicherry Group has 18 core members, including a former Bridgton Hospital executive, a retired Massachusetts nonprofit executive and leaders of the Lakes Region Substance Awareness Coalition.

“We all live in the community. Businesspeople are concerned. The community at large is concerned. The reduction in (health-care) access has affected lots of people,” said Cathy Finck, president of the board for the Lakes Region Substance Awareness Coalition and a representative of the Pondicherry Group.

The Pondicherry Group has spoken to other hospital systems — including MaineHealth, the state’s largest hospital system, based in Portland — about taking over medical care in the area. MaineHealth leaders say they haven’t made any formal presentation or purchase offer to Central Maine Healthcare, but they’re willing to discuss it.

CMHC leaders are not.

“Bridgton Hospital is not for sale,” David Tupponce, executive vice president for Central Maine Healthcare, said Thursday.

The Pondicherry Group’s movement is the most recent twist in what was a summer of turmoil for Central Maine Healthcare, the parent of Bridgton and Rumford hospitals, Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston and a collection of medical practices in 15 communities.

In July, medical staff at all three CMHC hospitals issued votes of no confidence in CEO Jeff Brickman. On July 31, its board of directors affirmed its support of Brickman, whom it had hired two years before to lead the financially troubled system. A day after that board vote, the president of the Bridgton and Rumford hospitals resigned.

In August, Central Maine Healthcare officials acknowledged that their physician turnover rate was 27.1 percent. Both current and former staffers told the Sun Journal that doctors were fleeing the health system and the exodus was causing a problem for patients.

The turmoil seemed to have calmed for a few months. CMMC’s safety scores jumped from among the worst in the state to among the best. Rumford and Bridgton hospitals were named among the best rural hospitals in the country. The system went on a hiring spree, including hiring a new president for Rumford and Bridgton hospitals.

But Pondicherry Group leaders said they and others in the community remain concerned about Bridgton-area health care — much of which is owned by Central Maine Healthcare.

“We’re just saying there’s got to be a different way to do this,” Finck said.

The group formed about six months ago, in the midst of CMHC’s very public troubles. Finck said the group has since researched Bridgton-area medical care and have spoken with hundreds of community members, coming away with a picture of a beleaguered medical system with too much turnover, too few doctors,  and patients who are increasingly going elsewhere when they can.

While Central Maine Healthcare has said its system-wide physician turnover rate stands at 27.1 percent, the Pondicherry Group believes Bridgton-area turnover is closer to 50 percent.

“We live in the community,” Finck said. “We just counted the number of people who were there and who left. Our source is local folks who know, ‘Hey, my doctor left.’ Just people talking to each other.”

They also are worried the quality of medical care has decreased and that CMHC has no good strategic plan for the area — or at least no plan that it’s shared with the public.

“We’re not anti-Central Maine Healthcare or pro any other health-care system,” Finck said. “We’re trying to figure out a way (to improve health care) because we’re in a little bit of a pickle here.”

The group has taken its message public, including recently presenting to a local Rotary Club. It has also written to the boards of 13 towns in the Lakes Region asking them to support the group’s recommendation that Central Maine Healthcare let go of Bridgton hospital and its medical practices so someone else can take over.

Bridgton Board of Selectmen Chairman Liston Eastman responded for his town, saying in a letter to the group, “While we agree health care in Bridgton has degraded severely, I do not believe the Board can publicly support a private business organization.”

He added: “While we want a new health care organization to come and revitalize our once-great system, we believe this is up to private businesses to decide through business practices they see fit to convince the citizens of Bridgton that they are the best choice.”

He did agree to let the group speak to the board during a public meeting “to get the word out about your mission.” He said the board can only “listen to your ideas and absorb your information.”

The group expects to present to the Bridgton board next week.

From Central Maine Healthcare’s point of view, that presentation won’t change anything.

“This is a group that has kind of come out of the shadows to allege that they are brokering some kind of a deal for the sale of Bridgton Hospital. That is completely false,” Tupponce said.

The hospital and affiliated medical practices, he added, “are categorically not for sale.”

He takes issue with the group’s claim that half of Bridgton-area doctors have left and that patients must go elsewhere for care.

“It’s nowhere near 50 percent,” Tupponce said. “We could argue percentages, but I think the more important story is that we’ve been able to almost entirely replace the physicians that have left in the community. If anyone has had, historically, problems with getting in to see a primary care physician, they should absolutely reach back out to those practices because every day we have visits open for patients to get in.”

He also takes issue with the group’s claim that quality of care has decreased, citing Bridgton Hospital’s recent honor as one of the best rural hospitals in the country.

He said the system is working on a strategic plan for the Bridgton area. That plan is expected to be finalized this spring.

“Peter Wright, who is the incoming president for Bridgton Hospital, he’ll be starting March 11. One of the things we’ve been talking with him (about) already is his role in being an active part in developing and rolling out that plan with the community,” Tupponce said.

Central Maine Healthcare spokeswoman Kate Carlisle said the Pondicherry Group is also wrong about the number of Bridgton-area residents going other places for their care. She said about 63 percent of people from the Lakes Region who seek health care go to a CMHC facility.

Tupponce named a number of CMHC developments under way for the area, including the opening of a new walk-in clinic, the hiring of two new midwives and the placement of additional surgeons at Bridgton Hospital.

“If (Pondicherry Group members) truly are concerned about access to health care, I would question why they’re trying to destabilize Bridgton Hospital in that community,” Tupponce said.

He also called into question the group’s motives, saying it’s being headed “by a disgruntled former employee” of Central Maine Healthcare.

“So I would be suspicious that the betterment of access to health care in Bridgton is really the ultimate end for some of the folks that are part of that group,” he said.

That former employee is Robert Slattery, who owns Allons!Health, a Bridgton-based advisory and health-care solutions company, and who was an executive who led business development efforts at Bridgton and Rumford hospitals between Jan. 2017 and July 2018.

Slattery said he decided to leave CMHC in July because he was uncomfortable with the health system’s direction, its a lack of a strategic plan and his feeling that it engaged too little with doctors.

“That kind of went against the grain of everything that I have learned and stood for,” he said. “I’m reminded that wrong is wrong, even if everyone’s doing it, and right is right, even if no one is doing it. I came to the decision that it would be best if I moved on.”

He said he is not disgruntled as a former employee, though “I became dissatisfied as a community member.”

Bridgton Hospital is a critical access hospital licensed for 25 beds. In fiscal year 2019, it admitted 951 patients. It has been part of the nonprofit Central Maine Healthcare since 1999.

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