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Task Force Chairman Brings Hospital Report to Legislators

Matthew Hersh

After a year-long effort, chairman of the Princeton Health Care Task Force and former Princeton Borough Mayor Marvin Reed delivered the findings and recommendations of the task force report offering potential uses of the land the hospital hopes to vacate within six years, and recommendations for the proverbial Plan B, which suggests zoning variances giving the hospital room to expand if unsuccessful in its relocation efforts.

The task force, a 10-member body composed of Borough and Township planning, zoning, and elected officials, was put together in April 2004 to review the PHCS strategic plan. PHCS is the parent entity to both the University Medical Center at Princeton (UMCP) and Merwick. From the outset, the task force was instructed to examine development and zoning possibilities for the 11.76 acres on the hospital's main Witherspoon Street campus, and, to a lesser extent, the nine acres that house the Merwick Rehab facility on Bayard Lane.

In addition to what has already been touched on in the press and the four public forums held by the task force, Mr. Reed said that he and his colleagues also had to consider the goals and objectives of the other hospitals in the region, namely medical centers in Flemington, Somerville, Belle Meade, Freehold, Hamilton, and two hospitals in both New Brunswick and Trenton. "If you look at [these hospitals'] websites, almost all of these medical centers are all doing the same thing that's happening in Princeton," Mr. Reed said. "They're all looking at their facilities, looking at what is state-of-the-art, and they're looking at how they can modernize and expand." Mr. Reed said that over 60 percent of the facilities at UMCP are more than 30 years old, including the surgical suite, critical care, diagnostic imaging, and laboratories. Fifty-five percent of patient beds, he added, are not in private rooms. Last month, the task force released its report with zoning and development recommendations that are "consistent" with the goals put forth in the strategic plan, but do not outrightly endorse either a UMCP relocation or expansion.

However, onsite expansion for the hospital would be difficult, and would pose a challenge for surrounding neighborhoods. If the hospital were to stay true to its strategic plan and remain a competitive facility, by 2025, it would have to consider expanding facilities on to neighboring streets. If the hospital does stay onsite, the task force has cautioned municipal governing bodies and agencies against using the method of acquiring land through "eminent domain," which allows for the right of a government to take private property for public use upon payment of its fair market value.

Councilman Roger Martindell asked Mr. Reed why the onus is on the municipalities to reduce the medical services in Princeton "just to compete with the behemoths on Route 1?" Mr. Reed could only speculate as to what hospital representatives would say, but indicated that an all-Princeton patient base would not be sufficient to continue operation.

About 16 percent of UMCP's patients are from the Borough and Township. The majority come from the east and south, namely West Windsor, Plainsboro, East Windsor, Hightstown, Cranbury, and Monroe. It is for this reason, that an area along Route 1 has long been considered as an attractive destination for a PHCS campus.

Councilman David Goldfarb expressed some disappointment in the task force's findings, saying the analysis should have been a "critical counter-balance" to the UMCP strategic plan.

Mr. Goldfarb cited the warnings of the task force's independent analyst, Dr. Alan Sager of Boston University: "Dr. Sager's report says Œcaution, caution, caution: what the hospital says may not necessarily be true,' but there's no critical analysis on the part of the task force analyzing why it came to the conclusion that despite Dr. Sager's warnings, the task force chose to essentially accept the hospital's point of view." Mr. Goldfarb added that in the Sager report, the modern community hospital is "not only viable, but may actually become preferable as the medical service economy evolves." However, Mr. Reed said that the task force's analysis was not generally based on the economic benefits or detriments to PHCS, but to the merits of improving health care. When the task force released its report last month, Barry Rabner, president and CEO of PHCS, called Dr. Sager's report "generic" and was generally pleased that the task force recommendations did not mirror the doctor's findings.

Councilwoman Wendy Benchley said she would "not be swayed" by what kind of money is involved in redevelopment efforts, but preferred to look at the issue simply from a use perspective. Mr. Reed is scheduled to appear before Township Committee March 7 at 7 p.m. to offer the same presentation. He is expected to field questions from Committee members and to hear public comment.


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