Winsted: The Story of a Strip-Mined Not-for-Profit Hospital

Winsted, CT — The origins; of the Winsted Memorial Hospital began with a $250 bequest by young Adelyn H. Howard who died an invalid in July 1898. Last month, a growing number of citizens concluded that this health institution, serving a town of 10,000 people and surrounding hamlets, made a decision that marked the beginning of the end for local control of the not-for-profit hospital.
Following the lead of their respective Boards of Directors, the corporators of the Winsted Memorial Hospital and a larger Charlotte Hungerford Hospital ten miles away in Torrington, agreed to place control of both hospitals in a new holding company whose board majority would be in the hands of Torrington-appointed directors.

Thirty out of thirty-one doctors along with over 90% of the Winsted medical staff op posed this consolidation. They received a legal opinion from their lawyers which summed up the plain reading of the joint agreement: “The Agreement and Bylaws as proposed strip from Winsted Memorial Hospital its ability to determine how it should do business, whether it should be in business at all, and what its fate might be.”

The strip-mining of Winsted — formally a diverse, economic: and service community, notwithstanding its large number of bars — has been going on for nearly 40 years. A several-times-a-day railroad service to New York City disappeared soon after World War II along. with the tracks and the station. The county court house was moved elsewhere. Employment opportunities grew in the Hartford area for commuters, while factories in closed down or were acquired by larger corporations; and then closed down. The daily newspaper, The Winsted Evening Citizen, recently was merged with the Torrington Paper. (Remarkably, the population did not decline.) And now it is the hospital’s turn and the controversy that is occurring here will be repeated in other towns and cities around the country.

The opposing points of view can be summarized. Critics of the consolidation, which included 23 out of 63 corporators„ assert that the Hospital was built by charitable donations and nourished by extensive volunteer hours (24,446 hours in 1964 alone). In 1955, a new hospital was built for $1.3 million which one local history book says was “financed principally by the people of this and surrounding communities.” In 1899 and 1910 state appropriated funds helped get the Hospital and its Nurses’ Home underway. All this and more makes, in their view, a public: trust relationship with their Hospital which warrants consultation and involvement in any major decision.

Transferring control of the hospital to the Torrington Hospital interests could lead, in their opinion, to closing the Winsted Hospital, or taking its acute care medical-surgical facility to Torrington or even selling the two hospitals to a commercial hospital chain.

Supporters of the consolidation say the Hospital’s survival is at stake even though it has operated in the black for several years. With capital intensive hospital services and deregulation shaking up the industry, they think that a holding company umbrella can provide for better planning and the opportunity to establish profit making subsidiaries.

Opponents respond that such cooperative activities can be achieved without holding company domination, reduce competition and subversion of charitable intent by thousands of donors past and present.

They would have liked to point out examples of how this cooperation has occurred in the state and nation, while preserving local autonomy and decentralized hospital facilities, but the procedures of the Winsted Hospital’s administrator and board of directors were too secretive and inclusive to permit informed open discussion. Their behavior was a textbook example of how to unilaterally give away control over an institution that, in an equitable trust sense, belongs to the community.

First, they and their Torrington counterparts paid a New York consultant firm about $80,000 for a study on their future directions. This report has not been made public since it was delivered a few months ago. It was even denied to the corporators by the board of directors both before, during and after the latter’s vote on consolidation. The chairman of the board told a reporter that there is no need to make the report public since the people would not understand it.

Critics think the report may contain embarrassing future scenarios for the Winsted Hospital or, at the least, may provoke public concern and activism.

The Hospital board shrugged off the pleas of the Hospital board and. staff as being mere occupational pleading. Nor were any public meetings held by the board in the half dozen towns and villages serviced by the Hospital. Secrecy, lockout and contempt for the communities’ right to know in deliberative detail why their Hospital was entering into this momentous agreement. If the administrator and the board have a case, they certainly were reluctant to prove it in the light of public knowledge and extended examination.

The chairman gave the local press his reason — the hospital had no obligation to explain the plan to anyone but its own corporators. For the people whose relatives’ lives had been saved in emergencies by having a nearby hospital, such an observation may appear harsh. For other citizens interested in preserving a not-for-profit hospital in their extended region, the chairman’s ‘Marie Antoinette’ philosophy could become a civic challenge which replaces passive resignation.

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