If Steward Health Care System were to close Merrimack Valley Hospital, it would mark the "ultimate indignity" for the city, said Mayor James Fiorentini.
He hopes many of the city's residents will attend a public hearing by the state Department of Public Health on Wednesday, Jan. 19, and make it clear to the state agency that Haverhill wants its hospital to remain open.
The hearing begins at 6 p.m. in the auditorium at Haverhill High School, 137 Monument St.
Steward Health Care System, an arm of Cerberus Capital Management of New York, has made a $21 million bid for the two Massachusetts hospitals currently owned by Essent Health Care — Merrimack Valley in Haverhill and Nashoba Regional Medical Center in Ayer.
Steward recently purchased the five Caritas Christi hospitals in the Bay State, including the nearby Holy Family Hospital in Methuen, for $830 million in November.
Essent, which bought the former Hale Hospital from the city in 2001, had agreed to keep a hospital in the city for a decade as part of the purchase.
At the time of the sale of the then city-owned hospital to Essent, the city was forced to assume the hospital's $85 million worth of debt.
The city continues to pay $7.5 million to pay off a 20-year bond for the debt, equipment costs and the pensions of former employees.
Now, on the eve of the contract's lapse, Fiorentini said it's more important than ever for Haverhill to send a message to Cerberus that it's vital for the city to have a hospital within its borders.
Fiorentini said the city's lawyers have already begun working to ensure that several city requests are met by the sale agreement. "We need to keep a hospital group here in Haverhill," Fiorentini said. "It would be the ultimate indignity if we had to pay for that debt without a hospital."
Fiorentini said it's still too early to tell when the final hospital sale will go through. He did estimate a decision by late April to early May. The city's continued economic stability requires that that hospital stay open, Fiorentini said, since it is the city's largest employer and second-largest taxpayer. As a result, "hundreds" of people should be interested enough in its future to attend Wednesday's meeting, he said.
The Massachusetts Board of Health requires hospitals to acquire new practice licenses when ownerships changes and part of the state's stipulations are public forums.
City Councilor William Ryan said no matter how much the city has prospered over the the last two decades, the continued cost of the Hale Hospital debt has weighed down the city.
"All that growth has paid that hospital note," he said. "We basically gave (the hospital) away to the Essent group. We paid $33 million to go out of business."
He echoed Fiorentini's sentiments of citywide unity for a hospital.
"There's a lot at stake for the community," he said. "We should at least try to show up."
For more on this story, see the Jan. 20 print and online editions of The Haverhill Gazette.