2013-08-16 / Columnists

From The Councilman

Where Have All The Hospitals Gone?
By Eric A. Ulrich

Once again, Queens is being shortchanged and this time, it could be the difference between life and death.

While there are many troubling issues facing my constituents as they recover from Hurricane Sandy, one of the most critical areas of concern is health care.

I don’t have to remind anyone of the devastating loss of Peninsula Hospital last year. Despite community concerns and a multitude of meetings and rallies, the hospital was forced to close after a mounting debt load could not be restructured, and a failed lab inspection put a nail in an already closing coffin.

This is a familiar story. Since 2008, Queens has suffered the closing of four hospitals, including Peninsula Hospital. These closures have cost thousands of jobs and resulted in a huge decrease in the number of hospital beds in a borough with 2.2 million people and a growing elderly and immigrant population. On the peninsula, St. Johns’ Episcopal Hospital in Far Rockaway now stands as the lone hospital left to serve a community of 130,000 residents. And now there are fears that St. Johns’ could be the next Queens hospital to suffer dramatic cuts or be shut down. This would be a travesty and we cannot let that happen.

Service Employees International Union (SEIU), local 1199, which represents many health care workers across New York City, recently sounded the alarm bells regarding St. John’s. The union is very concerned about the financial health and long-term stability of the hospital. Apparently, some regular hospital services, such as the family practice and internal medicine clinics, have been moved from the hospital.

While the effect on patient care remains to be seen, the union is very concerned that these steps lead down a road where the hospital is forced to limit operations. The union also claims that St. John’s has refused outside offers to discuss either mergers and/or affiliations with other hospitals. This story is all too familiar, especially to the residents of Rockaway and Queens.

There are obviously massive problems with the health care and hospital system in New York City, but rarely do we hear discussions about how to fix it. In last Sunday’s New York Times editorial, there was a discussion of a plan put forward by Public Advocate and candidate for mayor Bill de Blasio to deal with the current rash of hospital closures in his home borough of Brooklyn. Mr. de Blasio proposed a new entity, run jointly by the city and state, be created with “the power to modernize our hospital system, coordinate the spending of health care dollars and set higher standards of care”. The plan would be paid for by New York State being granted a waiver to keep $10 billion in savings that it has saved in Medicaid and would also require approval from the legislature in Albany.

Is this the solution? Maybe not, but I applaud the public advocate for recognizing that there is a problem and putting forth a plan. This would need to be expanded city wide and as Speaker Christine Quinn has argued, creating a new powerful bureaucracy is not always the best option. What is clear however is that something (or someone) needs to have the power to create a city wide plan that can force changes and contain costs.

Our hospital system is inept, badly managed and has not adjusted to changes in the marketplace. Hospitals are closing all over the city because of being poorly run and it needs to stop. It is unfathomable that there is even a notion that the lone hospital on the Rockaway peninsula could be closed. We need to hear plans from our mayoral candidates about how they plan to address New York City’s broken hospital system and we need a plan for reform from our leaders in the city and state. This is literally a matter of life and death.

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