The impending closure of Peninsula Hospital Center in Far Rockaway has cast a long shadow on the future of healthcare in a borough that doctors and legislators say already has dangerously few hospital beds and emergency rooms that are bursting at the seams.
“God forbid there’s a catastrophe, like an accident at Kennedy Airport or with the trains, because they keep closing hospitals and there’s no hospital beds to accommodate people in a disaster,” said Dr. Jay Tartell, president of the Queens County Medical Society.
Once the 173-bed Peninsula Hospital is shuttered, which could happen as early as September, St. John’s Episcopal will be the only hospital left in the Rockaways, which has a growing, and aging, population of about 100,000 residents, many of whom live in the area’s six senior citizen housing developments and numerous nursing home facilities.
While St. John’s officials have already begun preparing for the influx in people, as well as taking in patient transfers from Peninsula, legislators said there is no way the institution will be able to accommodate everyone that would have gone to the 104-year-old Peninsula Hospital. Because of this, area representatives and healthcare officials said Jamaica Hospital Center and Queens Hospital Center in Jamaica, already hit hard by the 2009 closures of Mary Immaculate and St. John’s hospitals, will be further stressed dealing with an increase of patients who would have gone to Peninsula.
There is an average of about 30,000 patient visits to Peninsula Hospital’s emergency room annually, as well as another 35,000 annual patient visits to the institution’s family health center.
“If the closures of Mary Immaculate and St. John’s are any guide, we can expect a surge in demand for services at the St. John’s hospital in Rockaway and as far north as Jamaica and Queens Hospital Center,” said Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows), who authored a bill signed into law last year that mandates the state Department of Health to hold a public forum on a hospital closing within one month of it being shuttered, as well as issue a report on the impact of the closing on the community and surrounding healthcare facilities. “Jamaica Hospital is already shouldering a tremendous burden and simply does not have the capacity to undertake a substantial influx of patients, either in their emergency room or in their inpatient and outpatient facilities. And, it’s quite unrealistic to expect people from the Rockaways to trek all the way to Jamaica Hospital to get their healthcare needs met.”
St. John’s in Elmhurst and Mary Immaculate in Jamaica filed for bankruptcy protection in February 2009 and began the process of liquidating their assets within weeks.
By that April, Queens had lost 600 beds because of the closures of Mary Immaculate, St. John’s and Parkway Hospital in Forest Hills at the end of 2008.
A spokesman for Borough President Helen Marshall said state officials told her office Peninsula is closing because it faces about $60 million in debt, though the institution itself said it owes $13 million to vendors.
Tartell said he believes Peninsula, as well as St. John’s and Mary Immaculate, fell in part because of payment cuts to hospitals from insurers, Medicaid and Medicare.
“They just keep cutting and cutting and cutting, and hospitals are closing one by one,” he said. “People don’t really notice because it’s a gradual process. It will only be on the public’s radar when there’s a major calamity.”
Legislators, as well as nurses and doctors at Peninsula, called this week for the offices of the state attorney general and comptroller to launch a formal investigation into the hospital’s closure and finances. Additionally, state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) said Albany should suspend the hospital’s closure until an investigation and audit is complete.
“This closure can potentially cause irreparable harm to a community already facing many challenges,” Smith said at a press conference he held outside the hospital on Sunday. “… With the recent hospital closures in Queens, strains on existing hospital staff will persist, and the increasing number of local residents will find themselves with few alternatives for medical treatment.”
Hundreds of people rallied against Peninsula’s imminent closure last Wednesday evening, many of them also calling for an investigation into the hospital’s finances.
The state DOH, the attorney general and comptroller did not respond to requests for comment.
Marshall sent a letter on July 29 to state Health Commissioner Nirav Shah, requesting she attend an “emergency meeting” with him and other state and borough officials.
“The closure of Peninsula Hospital comes at a time when there is a plethora of new housing and retail business development in the Rockaways,” Marshall wrote.
The borough president also lamented the loss of jobs at the hospital. There are about 1,000 people who work at Peninsula, and the majority of them live in the Rockaways, said Mary Burke, a registered nurse who has worked at the Far Rockaway institution since 1981.
Marshall pointed out in her letter that Peninsula Hospital treats traumatic brain injuries and offers radiation oncology and hospice — which St. John’s does not.
Dan Andrews, a spokesman for Marshall, pointed out that the borough president warned the state of a “healthcare crisis” five years ago, following a report she commissioned that called for new hospitals in the Rockaways and western Queens.
“The future of the hospital is bleak,” Andrews said of Peninsula. “Our concern is not only with the patients and medical care but the jobs that are going to be eliminated. St. John’s has indicated they’ll pick up some of the staff, but they can’t take everyone.”
The Berger Commission, the state’s panel charged with studying how to restructure healthcare facilities in New York, originally recommended that Peninsula and St. John’s merge into a new hospital that would include up to 400 beds. The proposal was never implemented.