Hartford — The hopes and tensions underlying the proposed acquisition and merger of Waterbury’s two hospitals were exposed during a public forum in Hartford Monday.

While Waterbury’s mayor said the plan could revitalize his struggling city, hospital union members said they felt ignored by the private entity that would acquire the new, merged hospital, and others said they were wary of the influence of the Catholic Church.

The Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, together with the legislature’s Public Health Committee and the state Comptroller held the forum to make the public more aware of the proposal and to give key players, politicians, advocates and union leaders a chance to comment.

The proposal calls for Waterbury Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital to merge with a private Texas company called LHP Group. During the hearing, LHP and hospital administrators said the joint merger calls for building a new, state-of-the-art hospital with 426 beds in private rooms.

They said they hope to piece together enough land to make the hospital the centerpiece of downtown Waterbury. They estimate the facility would take four years to build and would create more than 700 construction jobs.

“This is the most important economic opportunity the city of Waterbury has seen in my lifetime,” the city’s mayor, Neil O’Leary, told the panel, adding that he hopes doctors’ offices might fill some of the empty buildings downtown.

Some advocates expressed concerns about the new hospital becoming a for-profit entity. Others said they are concerned about LHP’s agreement to honor the religious directives of the Catholic Church, which prohibits such services as tubal ligation at time of birth, vasectomies, contraceptive care and medically induced abortions. The joint venture had to be approved by the Vatican because the archdiocese owns St. Mary’s Hospital.

Teresa Younger, executive director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, said her group has been working with Waterbury Hospital, the Office of the Health Care Advocate, the comptroller’s office and others to ensure that the merger ensures a continuation of reproductive health care services.

Theresa Connors, director of Government Affairs for Compassion & Choices, said she is also deeply concerned about the impact on the elderly, specifically the church’s influence on end-of-life decisions.

Dan Moen, the CEO of LHP, said the merger would pay off both hospitals’ debts and “fund pension plans appropriately.”

But union leaders said they felt ignored by LHP and said the company has not agreed to meet with them. Barbara Simonetta, of the Connecticut Nurses Association, said nurses have been asked to reopen their contract, and the company has proposed substantial cuts to wages and changes to benefits.

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