2012-05-18 / Columnists

East End Matters...

State Forgot About Residents When Closing PHC
Commentary By Miriam Rosenberg

They sat stone faced. No emotion except for a nod of the head from their leader, the New York State health commissioner, Dr. Nirav R. Shah. They listened and he continued to nod ever so slightly as area residents and former Peninsula Hospital nurses and doctors talked about the repercussions surrounding the closing of PHC.

Here is some testimony from the first hour of the meeting. One nurse told how a patient in the Peninsula nursing home, who if PHC were still open, could have been wheeled directly to the ER, died waiting for an ambulance. Some questioned how, during a crowded summer in Rockaway, ambulances to St. John’s Episcopal Hospital, or even on diversion, will get to their destination with any speed, between heavy traffic and the possibility of a raised bridge slowing things down. Others asked why SJEH, with problems in its lab, has been allowed to remain open but not PHC.

In 2010 The Hospital Closure Planning Act was signed into law requiring the type of meeting held at the Knights of Columbus on May 10. It was hailed as a way to make sure a community wasn’t left out in the cold when it faced a hospital closure. One of the bill’s authors, State Senator Shirley Huntley, said at the time, “Losing a hospital can adversely affect a community and its residents…. It is equally important to involve communities in the planned closure of a hospital and in replacing the most important services residents rely on. The residents of the community where a hospital is located have the best understanding of the services they need and what needs to be done.”

The bill’s other sponsor, Assemblyman Rory Lancman, said, “A hospital’s closing should not mean the closing off of healthcare services for the surrounding community, but that’s what happens unless the state listens to the community and makes plans for meeting its healthcare needs. We may not be able to stop a hospital from closing, but we ought to be able to measure the impact of that closing and come up with a plan for serving the residents who relied on that hospital for healthcare services.”

The bill cannot really bring peace of mind to a community that is losing their hospital. As seen with Peninsula Hospital, the bill is tantamount to closing the barn door after the horse is out. Just read the wording of the bill: “the ‘hospital closure planning act’; provides that whenever a general hospital closes, the commissioner of health shall within thirty days of being notified of such closure, hold a public hearing at a location within the geographic area served by such general hospital to solicit testimony concerning the extent to which such closure will result in the reduction or elimination of health care services in the affected community, and options and proposals for replacing or enhancing such health care services through other means in order to meet the needs of residents in the affected community; makes related provisions.”

The meeting just has to be held in the time frame indicated. Nowhere does it say the meeting must be held before a closing. If the DOH or owners or a trustee is quick on the draw, by the time the meeting is held – as in PHC’s case – the hospital will be closed. As a matter of fact, this meeting for PHC wasn’t even scheduled until after the hospital closed and the people made a big enough stink about it that the DOH had to schedule something. So how does this law protect the people? Shouldn’t such a hearing be held before the hospital is shut down? Shouldn’t problems be taken into consideration before the hospital is closed down?

No plans were made for PHC patients, except to assume that St. John’s would handle things. So I ask, was the state appropriately diligent, making sure there was alternate health care in the Rockaway area before accepting the trustee’s recommendation to close PHC?

Was overload at SJEH and possible diversion of ambulances ever considered a possibility? Were deaths due to these diversions and extra long travel to a hospital ever viewed as a matter of concern?

Or was all of this just collateral damage, secondary to getting the creditors their money back.

Considering that the meeting was scheduled during the daytime, because, it was explained, it was the only time the commissioner could attend, Shah leaving early was a slap in the face.

It was made convenient for the commissioner but not for the community. Yet in the end he wasn’t even there the entire time.

I live very near St. John’s and have always taken solace in knowing that, if there was an emergency, I could be over there in a snap.

Now that is not certain. In an emergency would I or a member of my family be turned away or the ambulance we are in be diverted to who knows where?

By the time the report about the May 10 meeting is released by the DOH it may be too late to save any part of PHC as the trustee moves forward with plans to sell off items from it.

Rockaway resident Linda Ruscillo said it best when she told the panel, “It’s not just a bankruptcy issue, it’s a people issue.”

From the perspective of those living in Rockaway the DOH, the trustee and everyone else connected with closing PHC have forgotten about the people.

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