PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Virtual meetings got underway Thursday night to receive public comment on the proposed merger of Rhode Island’s two largest hospital groups.

Lifespan and Care New England announced their merger proposal last February, arguing that, by combining forces into an academic medical center affiliated with Brown University, they can improve outcomes for patients and promote economic development in Rhode Island.

If the proposed merger were to be approved, the organization would have more than 23,000 employees, making it Rhode Island’s biggest employer by far.

Members of SEIU 1199 New England, the largest union of hospital workers within the Care New England health system, testified Thursday evening.

Patrick Quinn, the union’s executive vice president, told 12 News simply merging these two systems to be a larger version of what exists now would not be enough.

“It’s going to be the providing care for over a million Rhode Islanders, and once it’s in place, it’s probably not going to be undone, and we need to get it right,” Quinn said.

Quinn said getting the merger right has to incorporate the interest of the community, patients and workers.

“We’re not giving any care, as we learned in the pandemic, unless we are focused on rebuilding the workforce,” he added.

Dawn Williams, a registered nurse at Butler Hospital, said she’s hoping the merger isn’t solely about the profit, but about making sure the needs of Rhode Islanders are met.

Part of that, she said, includes training and workforce development, which she believes is crucial amid a staffing shortage.

“I think it’s important to remember that whatever happens going forward, that we’re already behind the eight ball, that we’re already short-staffed, we’re already not able to meet the needs of Rhode Islanders,” Williams said.

Both Quinn and Williams also believe a huge focus moving forward should be to meet the demands of growing mental health needs.

“We need to focus on that, and as we rebuild, offering more opportunity to get treatment because we can’t take everybody that we want to take care of, and that comes at a significant loss of productivity, stress on families, and tragically, sometimes loss of life,” Quinn said.

The next public comment session is happening Jan. 26 at 3 p.m. Written comment is also being accepted through Feb. 1.

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