Housing issues plague Medical Center, too

Fri, 09/08/2017 - 10:30am
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The lack of housing on Block Island is one that the Block Island Medical Center finds itself wrestling with when seeking housing for students, and medical residents, who help augment the staff at the Medical Center. That topic was discussed at the most recent Block Island Health Services meeting, when concerns regarding the annual lease of the Thomas House, which is located across from the Block Island School, were deliberated. The Board approved ratification of the lease, and the Town Council approved it on Tuesday. 

BIHS President Cindy Baute said the Thomas House, which the Medical Center leases from the Town of New Shoreham, “poses a problem for the board.” Per the restrictions, stipulated in a testator’s will, the New Shoreham Police Department has the first option to rent the space, while the Medical Center is fourth on the priority list. The testator is the late Violette Connolly, who died in 2010.

“We have to think long-term,” said Baute. “Do we look for another rental property? Do we look to purchase a house? We are fourth on the list for using that house.”

(Town employee housing is on the Council’s agenda for next week’s meeting, and it was recently a topic at a Water and Sewer Commissions meeting after one of the Sewer Company’s employees left for the mainland.)

 After the meeting, Baute told The Block Island Times that the Medical Center goes “year-to-year with the Thomas House lease, thus the uncertainty of having a firm housing plan for the students. Dr. [Mark] Clark has enhanced the Brown University program with the medical students, as well as expanding educational experience for Emergency Medicine resident physicians to practice in a more rural setting. It is a win-win for everyone, however the Block Island housing issue that impacts so many people on the island — we find that we’re in the same boat.”

Connolly’s will stipulates occupancy of the property in the order of priority: (1) New Shoreham police officers, (2) Block Island School needs, (3) town employees, (4) for the Medical Center and (5) any member of the general public. The terms regarding the Thomas House were approved and adopted by the town at a special Financial Town Meeting on Oct. 11, 2011.

Town Clerk Millie McGinnes and Facilities Manager Sam Bird explained the history of the property to The Times. McGinnes said that Violette, who once worked as a New Shoreham Town Clerk, and her husband Joe Connolly, who wrote for The Block Island Times, owned the White House on Spring Street, a property now occupied by The Inn at the Spring House.

McGinnes said before Violette passed away she sold the property so she could “pay for her care (assisted living). After her death, the Probate Court did an interpretation of her will, which led to a residual amount of cash from the property, about $500,000, being given to the Town of New Shoreham for the purchase of another property.” The town then used that money to buy the Thomas House, which carries forth the provisions of Connolly’s will. The town bought the Thomas House from BIHS.

Bird said the potential need of the property by the police, or another entity on the priority list, could pose an issue for the Medical Center, especially since its educational program has been a major part of Dr. Clark’s tenure as Medical Director. “If the police ever have a need for it, the town has an obligation to let them use it,” said Bird.

During the meeting, the board’s Treasurer, Pete Tweedy, raised the discussion concerning the annual lease. “The town generates the lease every year,” said Tweedy, noting that the lease agreement is a “fascinating read.”

Several board members chimed in on the topic, some were unaware of the stipulations noted in Violette Connolly’s will; notably that the police are first on the priority list. “That’s in her will?” asked board member Sue Hagedorn.

“It’s prescribed who is at the top of the priority list,” said Bird, who was in attendance at the meeting and oversees the town’s large capital assets.

“Is that perpetual?” asked Town Council-appointed board member Jim Fiorato.

“Yes, that’s the terms of her will,” said Bird.

Baute said the Medical Center is “appreciative of the fact that” they get to use (the Thomas House) and “it’s so convenient — the (medical students) can run back and forth, but we really have to be thinking long term.”

Board member Pat Doyle asked if there was any way that the Medical Center could purchase the property. Board member Donna Corey said that for that to happen “the will would have to be broken.”

Dr. Clark said a reduction in rent due to improvements made to the property by the Medical Center staff should be stipulated in the lease agreement with the town. 

“You can add an addendum to the lease agreement regarding that,” said Bird.

After the meeting, Dr. Clark sent The Times the following statement: 

“The Medical Center has always hosted medical students and the Block Island community can take pride in its role in helping to shape the next generation of doctors and nurses. This educational program benefits Block Island. Students help us take better care of patients. They have more time to listen, go deeper into each patient history, perform a thorough physical exam and educate patients about their condition and plan of care and follow up on patient progress — all without the time constraints that attending providers have. Students are known to sometimes pick up important exam or lab findings that a seasoned provider might be too rushed to catch. The discussion about each patient that takes place between the provider and the student during the educational process ensures that rare but important diagnoses are considered, and that a more thoughtful approach is taken.”  

“This season the Medical Center provided care for approximately 2,800 patients, including 28 helicopter transfers for critical trauma and medical patients, many of which took place after hours. Our students and residents provide manpower for complex trauma and medical cases and heavy seasonal patient volume — and this in turn improves the quality and completeness of care and decreases waiting times for other patients.”   

“The student and resident educational program is important for our community and its success is important for ongoing improvements to quality of care at the medical center. The education program elevates the level of care and helps assure that we are practicing at the same expert level found at top academic medical centers on the mainland rather than as isolated practitioners. This summer we expanded the educational program to include nursing students. Housing is a prerequisite for the educational program and proximity to the medical center is key for quick response 24 hours per day. Removal of housing would jeopardize the education program.”

The next BIHS meeting is Monday, Sept. 25 at a time to be determined.