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Update: PA Dept. of Health did not approve Berwick Hospital Center's initial closure plan

The department says the plan was "lacking necessary information" for an "orderly wind down of acute care services." The hospital must resubmit its plan for review.

BERWICK, Pa. — Update: The Pennsylvania Department of Health tells Newswatch 16 it has not approved of the initial closure plan set forth by the owner of Berwick Hospital Center. 

The hospital submitted its required 90-day closure notice to the department on July 15th. 

In a statement to Newswatch 16, Press Secretary Mark O'Neill says:

"The department has not approved the initial Closure Plan submitted by the owner of the facility.  The department reviewed the facility’s initial Closure Plan and determined it was lacking necessary information to provide for an orderly wind down of acute care services. The hospital has been directed to resubmit a more complete plan which includes a comprehensive approach to move toward termination of its acute care hospital license. We expect to see the submission in the near future."

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Original story: Newswatch 16 has learned of the closure of a hospital in a part of Columbia County.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health confirms the Berwick Hospital Center will close within 90 days.

People who work at the hospital's affiliated clinics feared this was coming.

That's why they sounded the alarm and reached out to Newswatch 16 to get answers.

Late last week, the hospital owners closed the doors of three nearby clinics. Providers there warned us that the hospital would be next.

Nurse practitioners Michelle Hall and Dallas Riley saw the writing on the wall.

They started calling patients last week, warning them their clinic in Berwick was likely getting shut down.

The owners had filed for bankruptcy protection.

"Patients would come in crying, wanting to know what they had to do, where were they going to get their medications? Where were they going to get their records?" Riley recalled.

"What do you tell them? You know, to go down the street and maybe wait three to six months to get an appointment? I don't know," Hall said.

By Friday, the offices owned by Berwick Clinic Company in Shickshinny, Bloomsburg, and one in Berwick (751 E 16th St.), had closed.

Signs on the doors instruct patients to call a number to access their medical records.

Riley says they feared this was coming, but they weren't officially informed of the closure until they were walked out. "We were given an official notice, and we were walked out," she said.

"That's all I've ever done my whole life is is take care of people. And today, I can't do that," Hall said. 

Berwick Clinic Company is owned by Priyam Sharma. She also separately owns Berwick Hospital Center under the company name Fayette Holdings. Fayette Holdings purchased the hospital in 2020 from Commonwealth Health.

Sharma and her husband have also operated two additional hospitals - one near Detroit, Michigan, and one in Galesburg, Illinois. The hospital in Galesburg was owned under the company name, SBJ Group, which bills itself as "hospital turnaround specialists" on its website.

The hospitals in Michigan and Illinois have both been plagued by lawsuits, safety violations, and government investigations, according to public records, as well as reports from fellow ABC affiliate in Detroit and our sister station in Galesburg.

In Michigan, a medical student won his lawsuit against the Sharmas in a "pay-to-play" incident. He says he was promised a spot in the residency program at Pontiac General if he paid $400,000. His parents paid. He was then denied a spot in the program and refused a refund. The Sharmas said it was a voluntary donation.

The Michigan hospital is also named in a RICO lawsuit from 2018, which was reported by the ABC affiliate in Detroit.

But it was news stories about what happened in Galesburg earlier this year that got the attention of Michelle Hall here in Berwick.

"I watched the video of Galesburg and the hospital closing, and I thought, 'oh my god, she's gonna do that to my hospital.'"

The federal government's Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services had investigated the hospital in Galesburg last year and found it was so understaffed and mismanaged that it posed a serious threat of injury or death to patients and employees.

In January, the Sharma-owned clinic associated with the Galesburg hospital filed for bankruptcy protection.

That move was followed just a few days later by the sudden closure of the hospital itself.

Providers here in the Berwick area feared they were headed for the same fate.

The Department of Health now confirms Sharma plans to close the acute care hospital and has applied to transition it into a free-standing psychiatric hospital.

"Think about all of the industry in the area. I think that's a critical access hospital. So if something happens at the nuclear power plant, where are they all gonna go? Something happens at the B.I.D.A. complex, where are they all gonna go?" Riley asks.

Berwick Hospital Center had already experienced its fair share of problems.

A report from the Pennsylvania Department of Health shows the hospital was without an anesthesiologist for most of the first half of this year. Patients requiring surgery had to be transferred to other hospitals.

The Sharmas are also being sued in Columbia County Court by three providers, including Michelle Hall, who claim they were never paid money owed under their contracts.

But both Hall and Riley want their patients to know that even though they're currently without a place to practice, they're not going anywhere.

"We're still here. We are going to find a way to provide care for our people," added Riley.

The following doctors are still open for patients: Dr. Mark Pyles, Dr. Gary Kanouse, Dr. Alva Smith, and Dr. Steven Sopkie. They've been getting flooded with calls from patients, worried they're closing as well. Dr. Aldo Suraci's office has also been getting phone calls after our story aired. He is affiliated with Geisinger and is not closing.

We reached out to Priyam Sharma directly. When we identified ourselves, she hung up the phone. We did make additional attempts to reach her.

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