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New Jersey: Struggle to save Muhlenberg Hospital

By David Hungerford

Man at protest holding sign and wearing T-shirt with slogans to save hospital.

Plainfield, NJ – The fight here to save Muhlenberg Hospital continues to intensify and broaden. Two public hearings of the New Jersey Health Planning Commission, on May 5 and on June 5, each drew more than 1200 people. The Commission must grant a Certificate of Need (CN) to legally allow Solaris Health Care Corporation to close the hospital.

The battle has seized the community to an extraordinary degree. An attendee at the June 5 hearing had to park several blocks from Plainfield High School, the location of the hearing. On the way over three boys around ten years old stopped their play to ask him to go to the high school because people wanted to stop the hospital from closing.

Ordinarily the commission rubber-stamps hospital closings. In March it gave a Certificate of Need to Catholic Hospitals East to close Saint James Hospital in Newark after the hospital had been closed. Catholic Hospitals East should have suffered fines and possible criminal penalties but big capital is ordinarily immune to violations of legal procedure.

Muhlenberg is different. The Certificate of Need has become a big issue because of mass opposition to Solaris. A main charge against Solaris is that its claims of losing money from Muhlenberg are false.

Community members have repeatedly charged that Solaris transferred highly profitable cardiac care and other procedures out of Muhlenberg to its other facility, John F. Kennedy hospital in Edison. By closing Muhlenberg Solaris will keep the business it wants and get rid of things it doesn’t want, mainly care for uninsured patients.

Some people think Solaris wants to close Muhlenberg not because it is losing money, but to make more money than it already does. They repeatedly say it puts profits before life and health. They demand an independent audit of Solaris’s books and its financial claims before any grant of a Certificate of Need. It is a crucial issue.

Both class struggle and the fact that more forces such as professionals and small business owners are being drawn into the struggle stand out on the people’s side. It was the working class that made an issue of Muhlenberg.

Plainfield’s overwhelmingly working class African-American community has been a big presence from the start. Ranks were swelled by hospital workers, most of whose jobs would be lost and many of whom are white. Latino participation is on the rise, although many are threatened by Bush repression against immigrants.

Class struggle

The struggle was initiated by the Plainfield branch of the People’s Organization for Progress, whose members are mostly African-American and working class.

In contrast, the St. James struggle was led by professionals and health care experts. By the time the masses became active it was too late. The Muhlenberg fight was started by African-American people because they are more used to struggle, and the working class responded in strength, black and white. As a result the hospital, which was supposed to be closed by mid-May, is still open although a number of services have been removed.

Class struggle has emerged not only between the masses and Solaris but right inside the mass movement. There are the just demands advanced by the people: “Don’t close Muhlenberg; keep it as a full-service hospital!” Then there is the defeatist view that focuses on what to do if Solaris succeeds in its aims. The difference is between two class outlooks. The former view is the stand of the working class: health and human life are more important than profit. The hospital stays, that’s that.

The leading exponent of defeatism is New Jersey Assemblyman Jerry Greene, the dominant figure in Plainfield Democratic Party politics. He never questions Solaris’s claim that it is losing money. He wants the City of Plainfield to buy the hospital and find ways over time to reopen it.

The problem is that in everything he says and does Greene assumes that Solaris will succeed in closing the hospital. As an elected official he gets a lot of media attention. The net effect is to undermine the people’s will to struggle. Moreover a municipal hospital would be an abundant source of patronage.

If the hospital is closed the authorities will have to make some sort of adjustment anyway. Any effect the people could have on the outcome would be as a result of the strength they gain from the mass struggle.

A class broadening of struggle has occurred. Muhlenberg is not only a vital medical resource to the community, it is a principal economic engine to the entire 200,000-person region it serves. As a result many business and professional people support retention. They have been of great value to the people’s cause.

The Muhlenberg Doctor’s Association donated $6000 for buses to take protesters to Trenton on April 15. New York Giants center Shaun O’Hara spoke to a rally to support the hospital. The president of the Plainfield Chamber of Commerce has spoken at rallies. Many elected officials from surrounding middle-income towns have spoken strongly to retain the hospital at Commission hearings. People’s Attorney Bennet Zurofsky wrote a 26-page informal legal brief to the Commission.

Crisis of capitalism

U.S. capitalism is in trouble. For example, New Jersey and Connecticut are the two richest states per capita, in the richest country in the world, yet New Jersey state finances are a wreck.

Wealthy capitalists like New Jersey governor and investment banker Jon Corzine are trying to throw the burden or the economic downturn on to the working class and oppressed nationalities. He is meeting with resistance.

The inspiring struggle the masses are waging around Muhlenberg Hospital may seem to have some unusual features, but it is a harbinger of things to come as the masses face times of basic social change.

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