The Rockaway peninsula may be left with only one hospital, with Peninsula Hospital Center set to close in less than three months as it faces deep debt to its unionized workforce, receiving far less public reimbursement than it costs to treat uninsured patients. “Without a long-term solution that puts Peninsula Hospital Center on the path to fiscal recovery, an organized closure may be the only option,” said spokesman Ole Pedersen.
The decision was announced at a hospital board meeting on July 22, where it was revealed that the hospital is bleeding in $13 million of red ink.
“It would be a catastrophe for the Rockaways. For many residents here, the emergency room is their only clinic and they already wait many hours to receive care,” said Esther Schenker, executive director of Jewish Services Coalition, which assists low-income and elderly members of the community in various assistance programs.
Without the 200-bed facility, only St. John’s Episcopal Hospital would remain to care for the approximately 130,000 residents on the 11-mile peninsula. If it closes, Peninsula would be the fourth hospital to close in Queens since 2008, taking away 1,000 jobs. “Among the factors is the payments they get back from Medicare and Medicaid do not equal to the services they pay. This is a recipe for disaster and a systemic problem,” said City Councilman James Sanders, who represents Far Rockaway. “We need to apply pressure to make sure that the payments the hospital receives are what it should be.”
For Hatzalah, the volunteer Jewish ambulance service, the hospital is a vital option that reduces traveling time, especially in the isolated Belle Harbor community. “Losing a hospital is devastating and while St. John’s is good, it would be under severe strain. For Belle Harbor residents, they would likely be driven to Brooklyn,” said Rabbi Elozer Kanner, coordinator of Hatzalah of the Rockaways and Nassau County. Rockaway Park activist Lew Simon said that with traffic, an emergency ride from Belle Harbor to St. John’s Episcopal Hospital could take up to 30 minutes, which could be a matter of life and death. “Medicaid is not widely accepted in this community but we also have the highest number of nursing homes in New York,” Simon said.
In 2006, the state-appointed Berger Commission recommended merging the two local hospitals into a single facility with up to 400 beds, arguing that both hospitals are “inefficient and outmoded.” The advice was never implemented. Instead, Peninsula joined the nonprofit MediSys Health Network of hospitals, in search of financial security. The hemorrhaging hospital saved on costs by deferring in union benefit payments to its staff.
Far Rockaway resident Jackie Bascom, who works as a nutrition coordinator at the Jewish Community Council of the Rockaway Peninsula said that while both hospitals are too small to serve the entire population, each has its specialty. “St. John’s has dialysis, but Peninsula has orthopedics, ophthalmology, and a dental clinic. St. John’s does not have a pharmacy and it is not equipped to handle the load,” Bascom said.
For now, local leaders are expressing sympathy and openness to all possibilities in keeping the hospital open. “I’m not opposed to the state taking over, I’m not opposed to the union bailing out the hospital, I’m not opposed to any realistic solution,” Sanders said.