Children's Hospital Expansion Opponents Plan Rally, Urge Council to Delay Vote

By: Katie Lannan

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 18, 2016....Though a proposed $1 billion expansion at Boston Children's Hospital now has the support of Gov. Charlie Baker, project opponents are continuing their fight, asking for a 60-day delay and planning a rally Thursday in advance of a scheduled Public Health Council vote.

The council is scheduled to meet at 2 p.m. Thursday when it could decide whether to allow the hospital to move forward with its expansion, which would add beds that Children's officials have said they need to respond to growing out-of-state and international demand. Critics have raised concerns that the project could drive health care costs in Massachusetts even higher and lead to the destruction of a popular therapeutic garden on hospital grounds.

The Friends of Prouty Garden group plans a rally at 12:30 p.m. outside the State House, with demonstrators then marching to the Department of Public Health building at 250 Washington St. for the council's meeting. The rally is intended "to show the state that the will of the people is to find a way to save the historic garden ahead of Boston Children's Hospital's ill-conceived expansion project," the group said in a statement.

The Friends group on Tuesday asked state officials to assess an alternative location for the project - the Shattuck Patient Building - that it says "would meet the needs of the hospital and minimize the likely risk of driving up health care costs in Massachusetts." Delaying the vote, the group said, would enable the council to study an option that the group says will cost $100 million less than the pending proposal, require tens of millions of dollars less per year to operate, and would "avoid the need to destroy Prouty Garden, which is an invaluable and irreplaceable resource."

Baker on Monday described the recommendations of state public health staff and conditions aimed at preventing increased health spending as "appropriate" and said the 71 additional beds were mostly associated with intensive care units and "very high-end services."

"Children's has made pretty clear that the vast majority of the expansion for those very high-tech services is designed to meet a need from out of state and out of country, and that it's not going to have an impact on the local market here," the governor told reporters after speaking at a Health Policy Commission hearing. "And one of the things the Department of Public Health has talked at great length about is making sure that it doesn't have an impact on the local market, and that it is in fact an upgrade in existing capacity primarily, and I think that's appropriate. But I think it's going to be very important for all of us to make sure that it actually acts as it is intended to act."

In recommending that the expansion proceed, Department of Public Health staff suggested a series of conditions including requirements that the hospital "not cover its approved final incremental operating costs by passing on the costs" to payers and patients, maintain its commitment to serving Medicaid patients, and report related data annually to the DPH.

A Health Policy Commission analysis found that the Children's expansion could increase health care spending in Massachusetts by $8.5 million to $18.1 million a year for commercial payers. The Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, the Retailers Association of Massachusetts and the National Federation of Independent Businesses all cited the commission's report in objecting to the project.

Children's officials have disputed the HPC's findings. Sandra Fenwick, the hospital's president and CEO, wrote to the commission to express disagreement with the data and assumptions used in the analysis, calling it "not a thoughtful deliberation of an application in which 85% of the costs are directly tied to updating our existing physical plant, the oldest among specialty pediatric hospitals in the country."

A ten-taxpayer group affiliated with the Friends of Prouty Garden also contacted the DPH to urge denial of the expansion. Among other points, the group wrote in its Oct. 11 letter that 16,000 people had signed an online petition urging preservation of the garden and that "numerous members of the BCH healthcare staff, including senior, prominent physicians" oppose demolishing the garden.