Cove residents offer concerns about possible Nason-Altoona Regional merger

It took eight years, but in 2012, Altoona Regional Health System – created by the 2004 merger of Altoona Hospital and the smaller Bon Secours – closed the Bon Secours campus.

People in Morrisons Cove remember that and don’t want a reprise of the Bon Secours shutdown with their little hospital – Nason – as they await the outcome of affiliation talks between Nason and Altoona Regional.

The hospitals announced in August they had signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding to “negotiate, discuss and develop an integrated countywide health system” – after nine months of prior talks “exploring potential options for better coordinating healthcare services.”

The managerial language may sound reassuring, but Cove residents are worried – and in some cases, unhappy.

“It stinks,” said Joleen Hoover of Martinsburg, a nurse at Cove Family Practice in Roaring Spring, of the affiliation effort. “I’ve yet to talk to someone who thinks it’s a good idea.”

Clearly, there are some Cove residents who think it’s a good idea. But Roaring Spring Borough Council member Kayla Noel isn’t among them.

“If they are going to take away our little Nason Hospital, I won’t like it,” Noel said.

Jesse Werner is a Tyrone native who works in Spring Plaza, a few blocks from Nason, with Noel.

“They love [that hospital] up there,” he said.

One reason is the “hometown feeling” it generates, said Judy Dodson of East Freedom, who also works in Spring Plaza.

“Nine chances out of 10, you go up there, you know the nurse,” Dodson said. “Everybody knows somebody.”

When she goes to Altoona, she doesn’t know anybody, she said.

“I don’t deal there any more than I have to,” she said.

“A lot of people don’t like dealing with Altoona,” Hoover said. “The great big hospital.”

Nason “is so much more personal,” she said.

It’s also convenient, said Sherry Nyahay of Martinsburg.

Five minutes to visit a patient, rather than half an hour to go to Altoona, said Nancy Mobley of Roaring Spring.

And when you get to Nason, you just walk down the hall, she said. You don’t need to deal with the complexities of big buildings with many floors, remodeled repeatedly over the years.

Then there are the jobs.

Mandy Drysdale of McKee, who works in an office on Route 36, has a daughter who works at Nason. Her daughter is unsure of her future.

“The people that work there have no clue,” Drysdale said. “Could be today you have a job, tomorrow you don’t.”

The potential for job loss also worries Sandra Kane of Duncansville, who works in an insurance office not far from the hospital.

There are also businesses that benefit from Nason.

The Spring House restaurant, a block from Nason, gets hospital employees, visitors and even discharged patients as customers, according to owner Nancy Brumbaugh.

There will be “an outcry” if the community loses the hospital, Werner predicted.

But people like Dodson will be OK with an affiliation, “as long as it doesn’t change the good care I get.”

The community should have more of a voice in what is happening, according to many.

It would be good to know the pros and cons, Brumbaugh said.

“How do we know whether [affiliation] is good or bad?” she asked rhetorically.

“Why isn’t the board asking how the community feels?” Hoover asked rhetorically. “That’s our hospital.”

There should be public forums to allow for discussion, she said, adding that Nason owes the community transparency.

Hoover thinks “the powers that be” have “scared” the board with select negative data reflective of annual slow periods, she said.

She thinks the board should take a cue from the wall of plaques commemorating numerous donations that have made the hospital what it is and give the community the chance to show that it can fund the hospital without outside help.

Not everyone is enamored with Nason or leery of affiliation with a bigger institution, of course.

Carol Lee Dively of Claysburg sees both sides. An affiliation could give patients access to the best doctors from both Altoona and Nason, she said.

Conversely, it could also create a monopoly in the county, depriving patients of choice, and possibly jacking up costs, she said.

Now, if she were to have a heart problem, she said she could go to Nason, which is closer to her family doctor, or to Altoona, where there may be better heart specialists.

If they combine, she may need to go where they tell her, she said.

As a Highmark health plan subscriber, Dively is also concerned about the potential for problems if Nason, as a partner with Altoona, affiliates with UPMC – with which Altoona has been talking about a larger, regional affiliation.

Highmark and UPMC have been feuding legally for years.

Affiliation will make Nason a better hospital, according to Sharon Detterline of New Enterprise, who works in a store near Martinsburg.

Her husband had a serious medical problem, went to Nason, and Nason transferred him to Altoona, where he got better care, she said. If the Nason and Altoona hospitals affiliate, the same kind of care her husband got at Altoona would be available closer to home, she said.

Affiliation will upgrade Nason, predicted Conner Johnson of Martinsburg, who works in a restaurant in the borough.

The general consensus is that if you have something really wrong with you, you go to Altoona, he said. Linking up with Altoona will provide the smaller hospital with more expertise, so that may no longer be true, he said.

“They need to bring some of these good doctors to Nason,” said Karen Musselman of New Enterprise, who works in a discount store in Roaring Spring.

Nason is known as a “Band-Aid station now,” she said.

Chelsea Troy of Frosty Hollow thinks joining with Altoona might change the culture at the smaller hospital – which is “its own little world.”

“They don’t see the bigger picture,” she said.

Affiliation might make the smaller hospital “more open-minded about how they treat you” – medically and socially, she said.

She’s had bad experiences with the doctors in the Nason emergency room.

You feel like you’re a burden,” Troy said.

But the majority of residents clearly is protective of the institution.

“It would be a terrible big loss,” Dodson said.

Brumbaugh, however, is fatalistic.

“They’re going to do what they’re going to do,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.