State help for hospitals not likely: Caritas

Scores of people, including Corona resident Jean J.D., a lab technician at St. John’s Hospital, rally outside the Elmhurst facility. Photo by Christina Santucci
By Howard Koplowitz and Stephen Stirling

Teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, Caritas Health Care Inc. sent a letter to the more than 2,500 employees of St. John’s Hospital and St. Mary Immaculate Hospital this week informing them that they could be permanently out of work as early as Feb. 14.

In the letter Caritas Chief Executive Operator John Kastanis painted a bleak picture, saying it does not appear the company will be able to obtain enough state aid to stave off filing for Chapter 7 liquidation proceedings before Thursday.

“Despite our best efforts, it appears that we have be unable to obtain the necessary financing to forestall a shutdown of operations,” Kastanis said. “Specifically, the state Department of Health recently advised management that it does not have sufficient funds to continue to subsidize Caritas’ operations.”

The letter goes on to say that in the event of a bankruptcy filing following a meeting of the board of directors on Jan. 29, all employees of both hospitals would be terminated between Feb. 14 and Feb. 29.

Before the letter arrived, more than 200 doctors, patients and community leaders pitched a passionate plea for help outside St. John’s Hospital Saturday just days after its operator’s board of directors gave the parent company the authority to file for bankruptcy if it cannot find additional funding by Thursday.

“What’s the old saying? If you don’t have your health,” City Councilman Tony Avella (D−Bayside) started, before being joined by a throng of supporters, “you don’t have anything!”

Avella was one of nearly a dozen elected officials who attended the event, geared toward rallying support for St. John’s and Mary Immaculate hospitals, which will be forced to file for bankruptcy and close if emergency funding is not found in the next week.

On Jan. 21, the board of directors of Caritas Health Care, the entity that owns St. John’s Queens Hospital and Mary Immaculate Hospital, voted to give the company the power to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection if it cannot find funding to keep the two hospitals open by the end of the month.

“Recognizing the serious, far−reaching consequences of these actions, the board voted to take these measures reluctantly only after exhaustively examining all other options and determining that sufficient funds likely will not be available to present a viable alternative,” Caritas said in a statement.

The board also approved a draft closure plan of the two hospitals for the state Health Department to look over.

Saturday’s lively rally went on for several hours outside the hospital, at 90−02 Queens Blvd., closing off traffic on two lanes of the busy borough throughway as protesters waved signs at passing cars chanting “Keep us open.”

City Comptroller and mayoral candidate Bill Thompson said Queens, already reeling from the recent closure of Parkway Hospital in Forest Hills, cannot afford to lose another hospital.

“It’s not just about dollars and cents, it’s about people,” Thompson said. “We are here to say no, you cannot close this hospital. The only way we can accomplish this is to make sure we stand together.”

Dr. John Dento, who is in charge of St. John’s’ residency program, said the shuttering of the hospital would send a ripple effect throughout the borough.

“The people we train here, who provide care here, when they leave they often stay in the area and practice,” Dento said. “If the hospital closes, the entire area will suffer.”

As he left the rally, Thompson said he would approve a rumored takeover by North Shore−LIJ Hospital, but said the state needs to step in to prop up the hospitals until then.

“If these hospitals close, it’s just going to push the hospital bed situation in Queens beyond its breaking point,” he said. “These kind of deals take time. There’s got to be some funding for this somewhere and the state needs to step up and find it.”

The Caritas board is expected to meet again this Thursday and cautioned that there has not yet been a bankruptcy filing.

Caritas acknowledged that it was “engaged in constructive, ongoing discussions” with the North Shore−Long Island Jewish Health System, with which it has an agreement to exclusively negotiate a deal to either sell either or both hospitals and provide transition services.

A similar rally has been planned outside of Mary Immaculate Hospital Saturday at 11 a.m.

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e−mail at sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 138.

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