Hospital Closures Stress Health System

Hospital closures have a cascading effect on surrounding health system.

July 25, 2013, 4:15 PM

July 29, 2013— -- A nurse at New York Methodist Hospital has been slammed at every shift she's worked since Long Island College Hospital, two miles away, stopped accepting ambulances.

Instead of caring for between four and six patients, some nurses had more than 20, including those who needed intensive care, one nurse told ABC News on condition of anonymity. Emergency room patients endured waits up to seven hours just to see a doctor. Those who needed beds had to wait up to 24 hours at one point.

"You just have to ignore whoever can be ignored. It's really bad," she said. "I had a 75-year-old lady with pneumonia who was like, 'Forget it. I'm just going to leave.' We have lots and lots of walkouts."

The controversial LICH closure, which health workers, unions and politicians have fought for months with protests and lawsuits, appears to finally be coming to fruition.

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Earlier this month, ambulances were ordered not to go to the hospital, so many went to Brooklyn Hospital a mile and a half away. But extreme temperatures, too many patients and an air conditioner problem caused Brooklyn Hospital to start diverting patients, too, overwhelming Methodist Hospital.

"We were short-staffed before this happened," said the Methodist Hospital nurse. "They haven't hired anyone new."

And if LICH stays closed--which looks likely now that hundreds of staffers have been handed pink slips and told not to come back--other hospitals may be routinely overwhelmed for some time.

Developers were "salivating" at the prospect of turning the estimated $1 billion property into luxury housing, according to a May New York Daily News article. But the hospital issued a formal request for proposals earlier this month from only bidders who can provide community health services "up to and including a full service hospital," said LICH spokesman Robert Bellafiore.

Still, union members fear it will be sold to developers for non-health care purposes anyway.

"What nurses are saying is that the situation in Brooklyn is dire," said New York State Nurses Association Executive Director Jill Furillo.

Methodist Hospital's spokeswoman Lynn Hill said the situation has been "a little exaggerated" by the nurses at her hospital. She said that the average wait time from "door to doctor" is still under an hour.

Twelve hospitals have already closed around the country since January, and that number could jump to 16 soon, according to Becker's Hospital Review reporter Bob Herman, who has tracked the closures since January. The four hospitals set to close include LICH, nearby Interfaith Medical Center and two hospitals in Texas.

The hospitals' reasons for closing vary, according to published reports. LICH's closure has been blamed on mismanagement and bad billing practices, according to Furillo and other union members. LICH's owner, SUNY Downstate, has said it is losing $15 million a month. Interfaith has been in bankruptcy court since December. The two Texas hospitals may close in part because their owner allegedly engaged in billing fraud.

In Brooklyn, dozens of nurses and doctors had been showing up to work to tend to fewer and fewer patients, until Wednesday when they were given administrative leave notices on pink sheets of paper and escorted out by security guards, union representatives said.

"When you close one hospital, it has a cascading effect on every other nearby hospital," said Kevin Finnegan, the political director of health care workers' union 1199 SEIU. "Those patients need to go to other nearby hospitals."

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Josephine Musarell, 58, started choking at her dinner table the first week ambulances were told not to go to LICH, which is just three blocks from her home. Her family watched in horror as her eyes rolled back and she fell down, fracturing her ankle.

When an ambulance came, she expected to be driven to the closest hospital, but it took 20 minutes to get to another hospital and even longer to see a doctor.

"This is a nightmare, this hospital closing," she said, adding that she was fortunate to catch her breath on her own before the ambulance arrived. "I'm lucky I'm here."

Last Wednesday, doctors and nurses at Interfaith Medical Center, which also faces closure, joined LICH workers as they marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to mourn what they called the "death of Brooklyn Healthcare."

"Closing is not a solution," Arsen Kotrri, an echo technician at Interfaith, said as he marched. "Closing is just bailing out on fixing a real problem… We're there to serve people, not make money."

Jeaninie Segall, a longtime respiratory therapist at LICH marched a mile across the bridge with a cane, said she hopes the LICH facility can be turned into another hospital after it closes even if her job can't be saved.

"It's a public health catastrophe," she said. "Making it OK to not serve people is shameful."

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