Reprieve Granted for St. John’s Hospital

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 St. John’s Episcopal Hospital (SJEH) is here to stay—for now. Following reports of a consulting firm proposing that Rockaway’s only hospital be reduced to a 15-bed micro hospital, the New York State Department of Health granted a reprieve.

A year ago, SJEH treated the very first of thousands of coronavirus patients in Queens. So it came as a shock when daily newspaper, the Queens Daily Eagle revealed on March 2, that about two weeks ago, New York State Health Department officials and the consulting firm ToneyKorf Partners LLC presented St. John’s administrators with three extreme cost-cutting proposals, that would be detrimental to the staff and community. The Eagle reported that one proposal would reduce St. John’s from a 257-bed facility to 91 beds and would get rid of obstetrics, newborn and pediatric services. A second proposal would make it a 30-bed health complex, reducing staff to just 337 members, down from the nearly 1,200 that currently work there. Most drastic, the third proposal would convert St. John’s into a 15-bed micro hospital serving the more than 120,000 residents of the peninsula and many in the Five Towns.

The report instantly raised alarms and caused instant pushback from community members and leaders. Elected officials started to organize rallies to fight against the proposals and made immediate calls to the New York State Health Department and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office.

The instant pushback was followed by some good news. On Thursday, March 4, the New York State Department of Health released a statement saying: “Contrary to published reports, the Department has not recommended nor decided on any of the recent proposals developed that would make changes at St. John's Episcopal, and thinks it would be premature to do so without further analysis and stakeholder engagement.

“The State's operating support for St. John's Episcopal has increased by 50% since 2019 and totaled approximately $60 million last year. Gov. Cuomo's Executive Budget will provide at least this level of financial support for St. John's Episcopal in the upcoming fiscal year so that additional options to provide a sustainable and higher quality healthcare delivery system in the Far Rockaways can be fully explored and shared with the community.”

Prior to the announcement, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards had called for a rally against the proposals on the morning of Friday, March 5, but with the latest news, Richards and other elected officials and leaders gathered in front of St. John’s Episcopal Hospital to give thanks for the reprieve and vow to stay vigilant in this fight. “Today was supposed to be a day where we would continue to fight against this ridiculous proposal that would dismantle this hospital,” Richards said. “The workers of this hospital put their lives on the line, the workers who were out there when there were refrigerators outside this hospital, the workers who sacrificed themselves and their family and, in some cases, their lives, to keep people alive on this peninsula. The heroes of this hospital deserve more than a pink slip. They deserve a raise; they deserve hazard pay, and this institution deserves more than any proposal that would gut it.” Richards described how the community was impacted by coronavirus and the disparities that the peninsula faces. “The answer is not to defund the hospital. The answer is to fund the hospital. The answer is to ensure that we have more resources to build out this hospital,” he said.

Richards thanked those who spoke out and brought attention to the proposals but reminded people that the fight isn’t over. “Our work is not done. We have to stay in tune to what’s going on. We have to stay engaged. We don’t take this lightly. As long as we stay engaged, we’re going to make sure this institution only grows,” Richards said.

Richards was followed by Congressman Gregory Meeks who said, “When the word came out, we all got together and said this can’t happen. It makes no sense,” he said. “We know that the future of the Rockaways, without a hospital, without St. John’s, is not a good future at all.”

Bishop Lawrence C. Provenzano, chair of the SJEH board said, “We’ve been here before, it makes no real sense to any of us who are trying to provide quality health care to at-risk communities to have this cycle in which our state government is wanting to balance budgets on the backs of the most needy communities.” He urged everyone to stay on top of this issue. “The next step is that we should never be here again. The Department of Health has to find a way of funding healthcare for the Rockaways without some large business plan. Let’s keep up this fight,” Provenzano said.

Likening this issue to a prisoner getting a reprieve, Senator James Sanders said, “a reprieve does not mean the sentence will not be carried out. A reprieve means they bought you a little time. It’s what you do with that time that becomes important.” He urged those in attendance to join local community groups and stay on top of this fight. “Let’s get to work so we’re not here again and we can spend our time building out our great community,” Sanders said.

Assemblyman Khaleel Anderson said “this is a temporary victory,” and demanded that even more be done for healthcare in Rockaway. “Healthcare is one of the major employers on this peninsula. A loss of this hospital would’ve been a loss of jobs, a loss of livelihoods, a loss of homes and a loss of a community,” he said. “We have a hospital but we’re in critical need of trauma care here on the Rockaway peninsula and now is the time to begin that discussion about trauma care on this peninsula. This is a temporary victory, but we have so much more to fight for.”

Other leaders like District Manager Jon Gaska, Dr. Germán Antonio Reyes, a representative of 1199SEIU, and even mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia were also on hand to show their support at the rally.

Ending its statement, the NYSDOH said, “The Department of Health is committed to working closely with the management and board of St. John's Episcopal, the community served, our partners in labor, and elected officials in identifying a modernized and sustainable strategy for delivering high-quality healthcare in the Far Rockaways."

Photo from Queens Borough President Donovan Richards’ Office.

 By Katie McFadden

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