Town, hospital officials weigh in controversial Encompass approval

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Critics and proponents of a proposed 50-bed inpatient rehab facility in Johnston weighed in last week after Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott approved its application, a long-awaited decision that took several months to reach.

The battle over whether Alabama-based Encompass Health Corp. should be allowed to construct its newest rehab hospital in Johnston has been waged since early this year, well before the coronavirus pandemic.

The Johnston Town Council sent the matter through to the state Health Services Council, which held several meetings regarding the need for such a facility. Largely negative testimony was heard on the subject before the board reached a 3-2 decision to ultimately send the matter to the desk of Alexander-Scott.

“The decision was based on specific criteria,” DOH public information officer Joseph Wendelken told the Sun Rise through an email last week. “After careful consideration, Dr. Alexander-Scott determined that the proposal met the requirements, including those related to public need and affordability.”

A couple of the facility’s opponents also offered their remarks, including Hospital Association of Rhode Island President Teresa Paiva Weed and Rhode Island Health Care Association President and CEO Scott Fraser. A request for comment put out to Landmark Medical Center and Rehabilitation Hospital of Rhode Island CEO and Chairman Michael Souza was not returned before press time.

Both had previously argued to the HSC that current facilities across the state are sufficient for Rhode Island’s needs, and that adding Encompass would only hurt other hospitals.

“The Hospital Association of RI is disappointed in and disagrees with the decision,” Paiva Weed said in her statement. “We are very concerned about the potential impact it will have on our existing rehabilitation facilities and our employees.”

Fraser added in his comment that the decision “will have a detrimental effect on our state’s nursing homes.”

“Our homes are already in a fragile position due to coping with Medicaid cuts by this administration and dealing with the worst health crisis in 100 years,” Fraser said.

Alexander-Scott’s seal of approval was a victory for Mayor Joseph Polisena, who has been a supporter of the proposal since its infancy.

“I met with the company, they said they were interested in coming, I said it was great,” Polisena said. “I think they knew I was a registered nurse. I had some medical background and I know the importance of rehab – whether you break a bone in your body and you need rehab, or god forbid you have a stroke, a major heart attack. I knew the importance of a rehab hospital, but also I thought it was great that we’d have them come in and they chose Johnston for the status of having a rehab hospital here.”

Polisena reiterated his previous dismissal of the concerns coming from other hospital organizations around the state, saying “competition is good for those people who use the services.”

“Whether it’s in the health care field or if you’re buying a car, if you’re going food shopping, supermarkets,” Polisena said. “I think competition is healthy for people who use the services. I think it’s good for the town. For some reason, nobody wants to lose their dynasty, but I think that facility is a great facility. I think it’s very professional.”

Polisena added that he doesn't see Encompass creating any issues along Hartford Avenue, where it is slated to be built just past the Interstate 295 overpass.

“Hartford Avenue, they’re focused to handle a lot of vehicles, so I don’t see it as a problem at all,” Polisena said. “They’ll do a traffic study anyway, because they’re going to want to make sure it’s efficient for their clients coming in and out. So I don’t see it as a problem at all.”

Council President Robert Russo also endorsed the project. echoing Polisena by saying the country is based on a “competitive system.”

Both he and Polisena noted Johnston’s close proximity to both Massachusetts and Connecticut, allowing the town to be option for out-of-state as well as in-state patients.

“I think it’s another jewel in the crown of the town,” Russo said. “We have an elderly population, and even if you’re young you can get in a car accident, [have a] stroke, knee injury, hip replacement. It gives another alternative.”

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