Backlash against hospitals' punishment

Flanked by local officials at the offices of the Catskill Watershed Corporation, State Senator John Bonacic and Assemblyman Clifford Crouch call on Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to fire watershed inspector general Philip Bein. (Left to right: Hamden supervisor Wayne Marshfield, Harpersfield supervisor Jim Eisel, Bonacic, Crouch, Coalition of Watershed Towns chairman Dennis Lucas.) Photo by Lissa Harris.

MARGARETVILLE, NY--A meeting on January 29 between the Catskill Watershed Corporation (CWC) and local healthcare providers, originally planned so the New York City watershed community could cooperate on better ways to dispose of pharmaceuticals, became a crisis intervention in the wake of a recent investigation of local hospitals and nursing homes by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

(Click here or here for our earlier coverage of Cuomo's crackdown on the hospitals for disposing of unused drugs by flushing.)

Fearing fines in the tens of thousands of dollars and court action, at least five local healthcare providers settled with the A.G.'s office as a result of the investigation, and are now required to pay smaller fines and change their disposal policies. Others were investigated and cited, but have refused to settle. It remains unclear whether or how they will be prosecuted.

“At the time of the A.G.'s visit, we were in compliance with New York State law,” said Michael Howard of O'Connor Hospital, which has signed a settlement. Speaking at the meeting at the CWC's office, hospital administrators who had settled with the A.G.'s office said they now face the necessity of disposing of all of their unused pharmaceuticals via incineration, not only the ones deemed “hazardous waste” by state law. The state of New York does not have a hazardous waste incinerator, so the hospitals say they will have to hire contractors to ship their waste across state lines to dispose of it.

Healthcare providers that had refused to sign settlements with Cuomo's office said they were now unsure of what to do with drugs that they had previously been flushing down sinks and toilets. It was obvious from the discussion that multiple government bodies were not speaking as a single voice on the issue.

Agencies with a stake in how hospitals dispose of drugs include the US Environmental Protection Agency, the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement (BNE), the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the state Board of Health, and now the Attorney General's office.

Prescription narcotics regulated by BNE must be destroyed and may not be thrown in the trash or brought off-site by healthcare facility employees, a requirement that left providers stymied as to what to do with them.

“We have a dangerous situation. We are up to our eyeballs in controlled substances,” said Pam Harmon of the Robinson Terrace long-term care facility.

At one point, Harmon asked BNE representative Anita Murray bluntly how the BNE recommends facilities like hers should get rid of their unused narcotics.

“What are you telling people?” she asked.

“It is flushing,” said Murray, who was greeted with grim laughter from the room.

The DEC is currently working on statewide guidelines for disposing of pharmaceuticals, but they have not yet been shared with the CWC. Tom Snow, a DEC representative who serves on the CWC board, said that his agency had forwarded drafts of the guidelines to the BNE for review, and were waiting for their input. “I was hoping to have them for today,” he said. “If it was under my control, it would have been done.”

The attendees agreed to meet again on March 5 to continue the discussion.

At the meeting, State Senator John Bonacic (R-Mount Hope) and Assemblyman Clifford Crouch (R-Guilford) seized the opportunity to hold an impromptu press conference. They called on Cuomo to fire watershed inspector general Philip Bein, and counted the hospitals' fate amongst a litany of grievances perpetrated by New York City against residents of the watershed.

“There is anger here. Justifiable anger,” said Bonacic. The state Senator, whose district includes the watershed, lambasted Bein, who conducted the investigation of the hospitals.

“I spoke to Andrew Cuomo [about Bein] sometime in November. I said, 'You have a cowboy off the reservation.' And he said, 'You know what? I'll take care of it.'”

In the press conference, Bonacic and Crouch also reiterated their support for natural gas drilling in the watershed. They challenged New York City to buy mineral rights from local landowners if the city did not want to see hydrofracking take place in their watershed.

“The people that use other watersheds—are they any less important than the people of New York City?” Bonacic asked, echoing the sentiments of environmentalists on the opposite side of the issue, who are calling for a statewide ban on drilling.

Bonacic made a plea for returning the control of the New York state Senate to Republican hands, invoking the hospitals' predicament as an indication that the state government was not taking upstate interests into account.

“As you know, the New York City Democrats have taken over everything: the Assembly, the Senate, the governor's office,” he said. “It is not Republican versus Democrat. It is New York City with their regional politics hurting everybody outside the region.”

Jim Eisel, chairman of the Delaware County Board of Supervisors, said that towns in the watershed should respond to the Attorney General's crackdown on the hospitals by fighting New York City in their negotiations for continued land acquisition in the watershed.

“That's how we've got to get them. I don't know how else we're going to stop them,” he said.

Cuomo and Bein have clearly stirred up old hostilities in the region through their investigation.

“Things are very fragile here. That's the message you need to take back [to Albany],” CWC's executive director Alan Rosa told Crouch.

This story was updated (edited for clarity) at 5:25pm.