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HOSPITAL CRISIS: Qns. reacts to St. Vincent’s shaky future

As city and state officials race to keep Saint Vincent’s Medical Center afloat in the face of $700 million of debt, Queens leaders differ as to whether the Manhattan institution is attracting more public support than last year’s closure of Queens’ Mary Immaculate and St. John’s hospitals — both once owned by the struggling Greenwich Village hospital.

Borough officials did, however, agree that Manhattan will continue to have far more hospital beds per capita than Queens even if Saint Vincent’s hemorrhages too much red ink for it to continue operations. Queens now has 1.6 beds for every 1,000 residents and Manhattan has 7.1 beds for every 1,000 people, Borough President Helen Marshall said in an interview with the TimesLedger Newspapers.

Saint Vincent’s has been an iconic institution in the West Village for more than a century, treating Titanic survivors and victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. As soon as health-care representatives announced the hospital might go under after operating in the red for years, public officials immediately began evaluating ways to save the hospital.

While some in Queens said it is understandable elected officials and residents would want to save a hospital with a venerable history of treating under-served populations like AIDS patients and homeless individuals, they also questioned why the same kind of attention was not paid when Marshall announced almost exactly one year ago that Mary Immaculate in Jamaica and St. John’s in Elmhurst would be shutting their doors because their parent company, Caritas Healthcare, was about $100 million in debt. Saint Vincent’s purchased the two hospitals in 2000 and sold them to Caritas in 2006.

St. John’s and Mary Immaculate, whose patients included substantial numbers of undocumented immigrants without health insurance, filed for bankruptcy protection in February and began the process of liquidating their assets within weeks.

By April, Queens had lost 600 beds between the closure of Parkway Hospital in Forest Hills and the Jamaica and Elmhurst institutions. The closures left other area hospitals, particularly emergency rooms, bursting at the seams and populations in southeastern and central Queens vulnerable with little access to health facilities, officials like Marshall and state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) have said.

“We’re short 1,000 beds in Queens, and no one’s screaming,” said Parkway CEO Robert Aquino, who is suing the state to reopen his hospital. “I don’t know why the politicians aren’t doing anything. I don’t know why the community’s sleeping.”

Former Borough President Claire Shulman said Queens has always been plagued by a lack of hospital beds.

“We have always been under-bedded, and now we’re more under-bedded,” Shulman said. “Manhattan has always been over-bedded, though Saint Vincent’s is in a neighborhood where they need the service.”

When Marshall traveled to Albany in February 2009 to secure support for Mary Immaculate and St. John’s, she could not land a meeting with Gov. David Paterson, who has made a number of public statements about Saint Vincent’s. The governor voiced few, if any, public announcements about Mary Immaculate and St. John’s prior to their closure.

Paterson’s office did not return requests for comment.

Marshall did meet with members of Paterson’s office, as well as state health officials when she went to Albany last year.

The Queens hospitals could no longer keep their heads above the debt and shut their doors to the community in March.

Marshall said state officials’ reaction to Saint Vincent’s is similar to their response to the Queens hospitals, noting Paterson gave an emergency $6 million loan to Caritas just as he has done for Saint Vincent’s. The state also gave $55 million to Caritas in the months preceding their closure, Smith said.

Unlike Paterson’s response to Queens, the governor has convened a task force with high-ranking officials to discuss Saint Vincent’s future. Those on the task force include the governor, state Health Department Commissioner Richard Daines, New York’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, city Comptroller and former Flushing Councilman John Liu, and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.

No such task force was created for Mary Immaculate and St. John’s, and a search of the governor’s press releases turned up nothing about the Queens hospitals before their closure.

While Marshall said the state tried to keep the hospitals alive, she said Saint Vincent’s Medical Centers pushed Mary Immaculate and St. John’s toward their financial demise. Saint Vincent’s merged with other Catholic hospitals, including Mary Immaculate and St. John’s, to create Saint Vincent Catholic Medical Centers in 2000.

Officials have said the group was poorly run and Caritas purchased the two hospitals in 2006 after St. Vincent’s filed for bankruptcy protection.

“Saint Vincent’s was not very merciful to them,” Marshall said, noting the Manhattan facility insisted all specialty cardiac care patients be funneled from Queens to Saint Vincent’s for three years after the Caritas purchase.

Smith, the president pro tempe of the Senate, said mismanagement at Caritas and low reimbursement rates for Medicare and Medicaid patients made the collapse of Mary Immaculate and St. John’s inevitable and insisted the state could have done nothing more than it did to prevent the situation.

“The only thing I wish I could’ve done differently is we could’ve demanded the hospitals be more efficient,” Smith said. “I’m not satisfied with not having information early enough. Could Malcolm have done more? Definitely.”

Queens officials agreed the borough has a dire need for more beds, and Shulman said in order for this to happen the state needs to consider New York City as more than one region. Currently, when the city reports the number of beds to the state, all five boroughs factor into the number, meaning the state does not see the number of beds Queens has in comparison to Manhattan.

“Mary Immaculate was always a really good community hospital and the loss of that hospital is significant in terms of the people it served,” Shulman said. “It should be replaced with something.”

Smith also said he wants to see Mary Immaculate, now owned by developer Jack Chetrit, become another health facility.

“We’re grossly under-served and there’s an influx of people moving in,” Smith said.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 174.

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