Rockaway hospital under financial strain

Photo by Christina Santucci
By Bianca Fortis

The future of St. John’s Episcopal Hospital — the only hospital on the Rockaway peninsula — is uncertain, according to staff members, who say that the facility has already closed its chemical dependency unit, transferred ownership of two nursing homes and has failed to expand its emergency department.

Debbie Friedland, a registered nurse who has worked at the hospital for 20 years, said there are fears that the hospital’s dialysis unit could be next to go.

She and Iona Folks, also a registered nurse, said the problem began with Hurricane Sandy: the hospital provided care to “anybody and everybody” from the Rockaways and received no compensation for much of it.

Pitts Management, the Louisiana-based management and consulting firm that runs the hospital, told staff members the hospital was $5 million in debt as a result, according to Friedland and Folks..

According to a statement released by the hospital, St. John’s is under “financial and regulatory pressures” but is committed to making changes to mitigate the strain. Those changes could include layoffs or mergers with other health systems, the statement said.

Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Rockaway Beach) likened the changes to the hospital “tightening its belt” so it can attract a quality partner with which to merge.

According to Robert Hadley, the communications coordinator for SEIU 1199, the union that represents most of St. John’s staff, administrators of the North Shore-LIJ Health system have been interested in exploring an opportunity to merge with St. John’s.

However, according to the statement released by the hospital, St. John’s has not received any “overtures” about doing so from North Shore-LIJ.

The statement also said St. John’s has relocated its family practice, internal medicine and pediatrics clinics to function as part of the Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Centers system.

“This has created new capabilities and opportunities for both providers, especially in regard to extending St. John’s post-doctoral training programs,” the statement said.

Clare Thompson, the vice president of the union, said moving the clinics is actually weakening the hospital because St. John’s should be able to provide comprehensive care, which is unavailable anywhere else on the peninsula.

“They are chipping bits and pieces away from services,” Thompson said. “Even if Addabbo has clinics, the hospital should have them too.”

Friedland said because the hospital has failed to expand its emergency department, staff members see a lot of walkouts — patients who leave without being seen because the wait is too long.

However, according to St. John’s, the planned $15 million expansion of the emergency department will begin as soon as ambulatory clinics are relocated.

Folks said staff members are not necessarily concerned about the immediate closure of the hospital, but whether the facility can survive over the long term if services continue to be cut.Friedland and her co-worker said cutting services or closing the hospital could be devastating, not only from a healthcare perspective, but also from an economic perspective: St. John’s is the largest employer on the peninsula.

“We’ve been down this road already,” she said, referring to the closure of Peninsula Hospital last year. “Emotions are still raw in everybody’s minds and hearts. We saw a hospital that was there for over 100 years go under. We’re all very, very nervous about what is going to happen.”

But Goldfeder said he is neither worried about the services that have been cut, nor whether the hospital may close.

“There is no imminent danger of closure,” he said. “But we will fight to maintain what we have. My hope is that when all is said and done, there’s going to be a quality hospital that has all the services it can provide.”

Several calls made to Pitts Management were not returned before press time.

Hadley said the union and St. Johns staff members will be part of a large health care rally on Aug. 29 at the former site of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan. Organizers expect more than 5,000 people to attend. They will rally to demand the governor to fully fund health care, he said.

Reach reporter Bianca Fortis by email at bfortis@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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