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St. Joseph’s workers blast plan to close down hospital

Led by Patricia Thomas, a nun and doctor at the hospital, about 20 people marched on Union Turnpike and Parsons Boulevard Friday afternoon with signs that spelled out their wishes to keep St. Joseph's open. No elected officials turned out for the march.

"I'm here to save St. Joseph's Hospital and surface the true facts," Thomas said. "We see this as a mission, not just a business."

The Flushing facility has been in jeopardy since St. Vincent's Catholic Medical Centers announced it was seeking a new operator for the in-patient, out-patient center last year.

Just last month the parent organization reported it was no longer economically possible to maintain St. Joseph's Hospital within the St. Vincent's hospital network.

Hospital workers and concerned civic leaders reacted to the announcement by immediately mobilizing to brainstorm ideas on how to save St. Joseph's.

"It was the beginning of a movement to keep the hospital open," said Jeff Gottlieb, a community advisory board member and assistant to state Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin (D-Flushing).

He said the rally was a small initial step toward unifying the community and keeping the hospital open.

"For a beginning it was a good start," he said. "It wasn't as large as people expected (the rally) to be. It did strike an accord between a number of people."

Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), who was not at the rally, said he was still a proponent of the original plan to sell the hospital to a new operator.

"I support the continued operation of the hospital," he said. As to the effectiveness of Friday's march, he said "time will tell."

"Any support we can get from responsible individuals to help keep this facility open as an acute-care facility is welcome," Gennaro said. "We're all working to keep this facility open."

Representatives for Gennaro said the accusation that St. Vincent's Catholic Medical Centers would sell the property for commercial use is egregious.

"The area that the hospital sits on right now is an R3 or an R2 zone, which means that all you can build is attached housing," Gennaro's spokeswoman said. "You can't build a high-rise like some people (are saying) or a McDonald's," she said.

Employees of the hospital have criticized St. Vincent's Catholic Medical Centers' closing of the Flushing facility on the grounds that the parent company did not give an accurate financial portrayal of the institution.

In a letter to the state attorney general's office, workers requested an investigation into the hospital's closing.

"The hospital administration as per Section 2808 of Public Health Law has certified financial statements that did not declare any potential loss, unmet financial need to update the institution in yearly filings," the letter said. "Nor did (the administration) advise the community leaders or the state governing councils of any impending financial problems that would require hospital closure to resolve."

Representatives from Spitzer's office said they could not confirm that the attorney general had received the letter or whether any investigation would take place.

When it announced the closing of St. Joseph's, St. Vincent's Catholic Medical Centers said it would cost $40 million to retrofit the facility, which was operated at a loss of $68 million last year alone. Representatives from the medical center could not be reached to comment on the allegations being made about them.

McLaughlin said he has talked with area hospital administrators who have corroborated these numbers, at least in terms of retrofitting the facility.

"In the end it's about quality health care. The last issue is we have to be in a position where we could make the capital expenditures," McLaughlin said. "If we were to lose another hospital in the area, it would cause a medical calamity. The other hospitals couldn't absorb the health-care needs of the community."

He hopes that at least for the sake of the workers, the other St. Vincent's hospitals in Queens, which include Mary Immaculate and St. John's, should impose a hiring freeze until St. Joseph's is actually closed.

McLaughlin said he sent a letter to St. Joseph's employees who live in his district Friday to suggest they use his office as a conduit for any concerns they may have.

"Once we lose that hospital and its beds, we walk the balance beam," he said.

Reporter Tom Hallissey contributed to this report.

Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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