“I’m outraged - there’s money to build stadiums, to bail out Fannie Mae and the auto industry, but here we’re saving lives and we don’t get any help from the state,” said Lorraine Mojica, a Registered Nurse at St. John’s Queens Hospital for 21 years, at a rally to save the foundering institution, held on Saturday, January 24.
Despite public outcry and the intervention of the borough president - who had asked the state to at least delay any planned closure of St. John’s and Mary Immaculate hospitals - on Friday, January 23 the Board of Directors of Caritas Health Care, Inc., which operates the two facilities, adopted a resolution authorizing the Corporation to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection at the end of January.
Although “no bankruptcy filing has been made,” the Board also authorized the submission of a draft closure plan to the New York State Department of Health (DOH) “due to unexpected financial difficulties resulting from the depth of the economic downturn, and its resulting unanticipated severe impact on the state and city’s ability to provide sufficient additional funding.”
According to a press release from Caritas, letters went out on Friday informing employees, “the unions that represent them and the City Administration notifying them about the possible closure of both facilities. All affiliated physicians were also notified.”
That same day, the DOH loaned Caritas $6 million to make payroll, according to Claudia Hutton, DOH spokesperson.
“She [Borough President Helen Marshall] doesn’t want to see the cessation of services,” said Alex Rosa, spokesperson for Marshall, who on Friday, January 23 was up in Albany in talks with Governor David Paterson and Senate Majority Leader Malcolm A. Smith.
According to a 2006 report commissioned by Marshall, Queens is critically underserved when it comes to hospital beds per number of residents. The report showed that Queens has 1.4 hospital beds per 1,000 people in a borough of 2.3 million residents, compared to Manhattan’s 7.1 beds per 1,000 for a population of 1.5 million.
“The trickle effects go beyond the brick and mortar of the hospital,” said Rosa.
And that was evident Saturday morning, when about 1,000 employees and community members gathered in the cold, chanting “Keep us open” and holding signs that read, “Don’t let thousands of jobs die” and “[Health] Commissioner [Richard] Daines, shame on you.”
“They’re putting money before people,” said Ann Hughes, R.N., who has been with St. John’s for 19 years.
She said that certain floors of the facility will be closed by February 14, she was told, and that the entire hospital will be shuttered by the end of February.
But despite the dire prognosis, she said, “There are still a lot of dedicated people - we start a half-hour early and finish an hour late.”
Hughes attributes the financial troubles at St. John’s to the fact that the hospital treats a large number of undocumented - and uninsured - immigrants, as well as geriatric and tuberculosis patients.
Caritas has said it “is engaged in constructive, ongoing discussions with the North Shore-LIJ Health System to explore the prospect of NS-LIJ acquiring the St. John’s facility following its probable closure, with the possibility of building a new hospital on that site. Caritas is also exploring whether NS-LIJ would be able to help provide transitional services in the interim.”
Terry Lynam, a spokesperson for North Shore-LIJ, told The Courier that they signed an agreement with Caritas in November of last year that “gave us exclusive negotiating rights.”
“North Shore-LIJ is proposing replacing Mary Immaculate and St. John’s with one new facility” near the latter. “The rationale being that a much higher quality of care can be provided with a new facility. It is our belief that the residents of central Queens deserve a new hospital.”
Calling the cost of trying to renovate the current structures “prohibitive,” Lynam said building a new hospital will cost “several hundred million.”
“We need significant funding support, including access to the Dormitory Authority, which does bonding for health care facilities,” he said, noting that North Shore-LIJ has presented a proposal to the State Department of Health (DOH), although “We have not been given any indication at this point that they would look favorable on our proposal in light of the budget crisis.”
Caritas has said it “is participating in a dialogue with the State DOH, community leaders and other Queens health care providers to ensure that current patients are properly cared for and accommodations are made at nearby hospitals and health centers for the additional patient load.”
However, officials at Elmhurst Hospital are worried about potentially handling the additional patients.
For example, “This past Tuesday, January 20,” said Dario L. Centorcelli, spokesperson, “there were 144 people at one time in the emergency room. In the hospital, we were at 101 percent capacity.
“This means that 30 [patients] were waiting for beds,” he continued. “We keep them in the ER, where they are well cared for, but it backs up the ER.”
St. John’s and Mary Immaculate hospitals provide health care services to approximately 200,000 Queens residents annually, and employ 2,500 medical professionals and health services workers.
In 2008 alone, according to Mojica, who commutes more than an hour to work, St. John’s saw 48,000 emergency room visits; 17,826 EMS runs; 7,000 surgeries; and 1,200 deliveries.
“That speaks volumes about how much the community needs us,” she said.
“The focus right now is to increase capacity to provide more emergency care and primary care in anticipation that Forest Hills Hospital will have to take in patients that were previously treated at St. John’s and Mary Immaculate,” said Lynam.
“In Queens there has been a decline in the number of hospitals and beds but an increase in residents,” said Michael Hinck, director of Public Affairs for Jamaica Hospital. “The administrative staff at Jamaica Hospital has been here 30 years and there used to be 23 hospitals in Queens. There are 10 now with the closings of St. John’s and Mary Immaculate but the residents have increased. Even if we get a portion of Mary Immaculate’s ER patients, it will have an impact.”
The Caritas Board of Directors is scheduled to meet again on Thursday, January 29.
Once a closure plan is submitted to the DOH, the law gives the agency 30 days for review, said Hutton.
“We’re hoping the squeaking wheel will be heard,” said Hughes.
- With additional reporting by Claudia Cruz