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Hospital closure bill awaits Paterson’s pen

A bevy of elected officials representing Queens at the city and state level gathered last week outside Jamaica’s Queens Hospital Center to call on Gov. David Paterson to sign a bill that would require the state to notify communities about hospital closings and plan more extensively for the fallout.

The bill, introduced by state Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows), would force the state Health Department to hold public hearings in communities where hospitals were scheduled to be shuttered as well as produce a report on the impact of health care availability following the closures.

“We urge the governor to sign this bill for the benefit of the 2 million people in Queens,” Lancman said. “Queens is seriously under-bedded and under-resourced.”

The bill, passed by the state Assembly in June and the state Senate in September, comes in the wake of the closing of three borough hospitals within five months between October 2008 and the end of February: St. John’s in Elmhurst, Mary Immaculate in Jamaica and Parkway in Forest Hills. The nation’s first swine flu outbreak struck Queens in April.

The governor has one week to decide whether to sign or veto the bill, Lancman said.

Borough President Helen Marshall said western Queens residents are often forced to travel to Manhattan if they become ill due to the borough’s hospital closings.

“I’ve seen gurneys in the middle of hallways, so that people couldn’t even get into emergency rooms,” she said. “I’ve seen two beds behind curtains when there would typically be just one. I’ve thought, ‘What would happen if we had a pandemic? Now, we have a pandemic. This is not the way to treat the citizens of this country.”

State Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) said he had spoken to Paterson, who told him that he would look closely at the bill.

“It is obvious to all of us that health care is the No. 1 issue being discussed across the country,” said Smith, who is also the Senate’s pro tempore. “It’s just as important as the economy. But make no mistake about it — whether the governor signs the bill or not, we’ll never again find ourselves in the position where two hospitals close right under our noses.”

Lancman said the borough is facing a “perfect storm” of health care crises, including the closing of the three hospitals and a potential health care plan from the federal government that could negatively impact the state and state budget cuts.

“This puts a terrible load on Jamaica Hospital and Queens Hospital Center,” state Assemblywoman Barbara Clark (D-Queens Village) said. “It’s unfair, unsafe and unhealthy. The [state] Health Department has not been as responsive as it should be on the impact on our communities.”

Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at nduke@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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