Former Peninsula Hospital employees, elected officials and residents had only one hour to convince Health Commissioner Nirav Shah to consider the needs of the community before the state’s top health official silently slinked out of the four-hour meeting.
“That’s disrespectful,” said Mary Kampa, 52, a former nurse at Peninsula.
More than 200 people packed the public forum, held on May 10 by the State Department of Health (DOH) at Knights of Columbus Hall, to plead with the DOH to address the “state of emergency” in the area and to relieve the health crisis caused after Peninsula was shuttered last month.
“The Rockaway residents are scared and they are angry,” said Joan Sommermeyer, a labor representative for the New York State Nurses Association.
Resident Bernie Feuer said he fears the approaching beach season at the Rockaways, which sees close to 10,000 visitors each week during the summer. Some residents said the potential drownings, boardwalk injuries and heat wave cases would be too much for St. John’s Episcopal to handle.
“With St. John’s on diversion so often due to the closing of Peninsula Hospital, many of these patients will not make it. They will have to be transferred to facilities off the peninsula. This tragic eventuality is totally inhumane, unacceptable and avoidable,” Kampa said.
St. John’s is now the only hospital on the peninsula, serving more than 100,000 residents. According to a spokesperson, the hospital’s emergency services were briefly diverted last week, but the only other time services were temporarily delayed was for an hour on the day Peninsula permanently closed.
Since Peninsula’s closure, St. John’s has experienced a 35 percent increase in patient visits to its emergency department, while its inpatient volume has increased approximately 11 percent and its regular occupancy rates have risen by 85 percent, the spokesperson said.
Shah directly addressed the sometimes raucous crowd one hour into the meeting, saying their concerns were heard “loud and clear.”
“The reality is we’ve gone far, and we have a lot of work to do. For too long, this community has not gotten what it deserves in terms of the quality of care,” Shah said moments before leaving. “I can’t say that I have all the answers. I wish there was a silver bullet, but it’s not that easy. I wish it were because then we would do it.”
The health commissioner’s sudden and quiet departure placed the burden on three deputy health officials to hear out angered residents and local leaders, who said the early hearing — scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. — was already “set for failure.”
“I’m disappointed that Commissioner Shah didn’t see fit to stay past 5 p.m. Four hours, in my opinion, is not a lot to ask for when you’re a public servant,” said Councilmember Eric Ulrich. “He works for us. We don’t work for him.”
Meanwhile, Seth Guterman, president of People’s Choice Hospital — an investor which had expressed interest in saving the hospital — told the panel the company is still willing to sit down with health officials and the community to ink a deal.
“We’re here to help you if you want to do this,” Guterman said. “If there’s a win-win for the creditors, a win-win for the community and a win-win for the hospital, it should be entertained. It shouldn’t just be shut down because a trustee wanted to make money for the creditors.”
The DOH will issue a report within 60 days of the forum, addressing the public’s comments. Shah said “there is work being done as we speak” in terms of increasing primary and acute care in the area.