Pa. Department of Health rebuked Tower Health over Jennersville and Brandywine Hospital closure plans

A Dec. 28 letter says Tower failed to provide Chester County Emergency Medical Services with “accurate, ongoing communication.”

The exterior of Jennersville Hospital in West Grove

Jennersville Hospital in West Grove, Pa. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Tower Health, owner of the now-shuttered Jennersville Hospital and soon-to-be-closed Brandywine Hospital in Chester County, apparently failed to comply with closure plans that were submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, according to a letter obtained by WHYY News.

The letter of rebuke — which begins, “Dear Tower Health CEO” — was sent from the Office of the Secretary of Health on Dec. 28, just days before the closure of Jennersville Hospital on New Year’s Eve.

The two-page document, signed by Acting Secretary of Health Keara Klinepeter, says that the department was made aware on Dec. 22 that Tower Health had not provided Chester County Emergency Medical Services with “accurate, ongoing communication” regarding the hospital closures.

“This failure is unacceptable. The Emergency Medical Services division plays a key role in assisting and planning resource allocation and ensuring prompt access to care. Without ongoing, accurate information, EMS is not able to fulfill those duties, which poses an avoidable risk to public safety,” the letter reads.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

In addition, the letter says, Tower Health had not had a representative participating in the Regional Healthcare Coalition, as well as in weekly meetings to assist with planning and preparedness efforts.

“Again, this is unacceptable. The health care coalitions and regional partners are making plans to address increased emergency department volumes, compounding of the dire shortage of behavioral health services, and ensuring support and coordination across the region all while managing an ongoing pandemic. It is inexcusable that you would not make Tower Health personnel available to participate in those efforts,” the letter reads.

It also takes Tower Health to task for not providing enough information to the public. In a review of the health system’s websites for the two hospitals, the Department of Health found little to no information regarding the ending of emergency services or how to access medical records, and no contact information for those who have questions.

WHYY News reached out to the state Department of Health for comment about the potential consequences to Tower Health of failure to comply with the closure plan. A department spokesperson confirmed that the letter was indeed authentic, and that it was sent “after being made aware that several stakeholders felt Tower’s communication with them about the closures of Jennersville and Brandywine Hospital was inadequate and impacting local preparedness efforts.”

The Department of Health said that while its goal is to “preserve” access to quality health care, it generally cannot stop a hospital from closing. The spokesperson said that the focus is instead on keeping patient safety up to par as operations wind down.

“While ideally that should be a collaborative effort, the Health Care Facilities Act provides the Department with enforcement tools in the event it appears closure is not occurring in a manner that preserves patient safety including imposition of civil monetary penalties,” the statement said.

WHYY News also reached out to Tower Health about the letter and received this statement:

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“Tower Health responded to the DOH letter outlining how we fulfilled our closure plans as planned and in accordance with DOH regulations. The Department completed a post-closure survey of Jennersville Hospital [last] week and found no deficiencies or concerns.”

When asked for proof of a passed post-closure survey, Tower Health did not respond to two requests for comment. When asked for confirmation of a post-closure survey being conducted, the Department of Health said that it cannot comment on surveys that are not yet available.

“While the Department cannot comment on any active regulatory oversight activities, if the Department would determine a facility, including a facility preparing for closure, would be in violation of state law, those findings would be documented and made available on the Department’s website at least 41 days following a survey exit date,” the statement said.

With Brandywine Hospital set to close on Monday, Jan. 31, the Department of Health did acknowledge that a closure survey would be conducted once the facility has ceased offering health care services to the public. That  happens routinely following the closure of medical centers.

“They generally occur within a few weeks after the facility has closed to the public. There are elements of a closure, such as removing medications and supplies from the facility, that can’t occur while patients are still receiving care, so time is built in for those final measures to be completed,” the Health Department statement said.

Though in the Dec. 28 letter to Tower Klinepeter sympathizes with the difficulties of closing two hospitals, she pulls no punches over the lack of “effective communication.”

“Chester County will be feeling the impacts of the loss of health care services and jobs caused by the closures of Jennersville and Brandywine Hospitals for years to come, and keeping the public informed so they can navigate the process as effectively as possible is one of your most basic responsibilities,” the letter reads.

For those reasons, the Department of Health demanded that Tower Health contact first responders as well as elected officials and provide them with a detailed plan, contact the Regional Healthcare Coalition, add more information to the website, and update the closure plans.

Although it applauds the work of local officials and health care partners, the Department of Health letter asks that Tower Health be a “willing partner” — or face the consequences.

“Failure to ensure a safe, orderly closure in accordance with your closure plan could result in regulatory action being taken against you, including the imposition of civil monetary penalties, and will be a factor considered in determining whether Tower Health is a responsible health care provider for all other licensed health care facilities under your ownership in the commonwealth,” the letter reads.

With the planned closure of Brandywine Hospital days away, it is unclear what, if anything, the Health Department’s letter could mean for a delay.

In November, salvation seemed to be on the horizon, when Tower announced that there was a buyer in line to take over the operations of Jennersville and Brandywine hospitals. That deal fell apart in December, leading to the relatively abrupt closure of Jennersville.

Canyon Atlantic Partners LLC, the hospital management firm that initially sought to buy the two hospitals, has since asked a Chester County Common Pleas Court judge for an injunction to halt their closure, arguing that Tower Health breached the terms of the contract by pulling out of the deal without advance notice.

Although the future of Chestnut Hill Hospital is up in the air following another failed deal, Tower Health will still own that hospital as well as Phoenixville Hospital, Pottstown Hospital, Reading Hospital, and St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children after Jan. 31.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal