Volume 79, Number 41 | March 17 - 23, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager file photo by Jefferson Siegel

St. Vincent’s Hospital’s O’Toole building, at Seventh Ave. and 12th St.

Fear and loathing on Ninth Ave. over St. Vincent’s

By Diane Vacca 

Frustration, anger and fear were palpable at a recent Chelsea town hall meeting to search for solutions that would allow St. Vincent’s Hospital to continue caring for the community.

The hospital continues to operate only thanks to loans from the state and the banks that hold its bonds and mortgages, Assemblymember Richard Gottfried told the meeting, at the Hudson Guild Fulton Center on Ninth Ave. In addition, he said, St. Vincent’s top management has taken a pay cut of close to 25 percent, and the hospital’s union workers have agreed to a temporary 15 percent pay cut. The whole package of pay cuts and layoffs will save St. Vincent’s about $1 million to $1.5 million of its $5 million monthly operating deficit, added Gottfried, chairperson of the Assembly’s Health Committee. At the state level, the governor and his top health policy people “have literally been working night and day every day to try to make miracles happen,” Gottfried said.

The longtime assemblymember attributed St. Vincent’s current crisis to three factors. First, he said, more than many hospitals, St. Vincent’s welcomes people without insurance who can’t afford to pay for medical services. 

“That’s always been its mission,” Gottfried said, adding it’s “terrific for the community.” Clearly, though, paying out without taking in is hardly a viable business model. 

Second, he continued, the Greenwich Village hospital complex’s buildings are old and therefore expensive to maintain. 

Finally, Gottfried said, St. Vincent’s is the only hospital in Manhattan that doesn’t belong to a chain of hospitals. Consequently, it has no bargaining power with the insurance companies. St. Vincent’s has to accept much lower payments than other hospitals for the same services.

“We need to figure out some way to make the insurance companies step up to the plate and treat St. Vincent’s a lot more fairly,” Gottfried said. “They’re not going to do that unless the state twists some arms.” The assemblymember is drafting legislation that would give the state emergency power to require insurance companies to pay more to hospitals in St. Vincent’s situation.

Local residents like Carol Demech called attention to problems in the hospital’s billing department that may also be contributing to St. Vincent’s financial crisis. Despite numerous calls to the hospital and letters to St. Vincent’s C.E.O. Henry Amoroso, continuous errors made in her account over five years were never straightened out, she explained, noting she once received a bill for just 13 cents. “You could have called me on the telephone,” she said of what she told the hospital’s accounting department. “Your postage cost more than 13 cents, [and] I would have gladly stopped by and given you a quarter and you could have kept the change.”

Recent City Council candidate Yetta Kurland, a Chelsea resident, called for a thorough examination of St. Vincent’s books. 

“We really need to look at how those monies are being used to make sure we set our hospital up for success,” Kurland stated.

Community Board 4 member Miguel Acevedo, head of the Fulton Houses Tenant Association, chaired the meeting. He called for the Catholic Church to pony up money for the historic Catholic hospital, which is more than 160 years old. 

“The governor and the mayor should be stepping up to the plate,” he added, “the archdiocese also and the Obama administration.”

Yehudit Moch, speaking on behalf of Hudson Guild Adult Services, asked if the hospital has considered ending its affiliation with the Catholic Church as a way to become eligible for federal and state funds.

“Use the media to keep the pressure on,” said Samuel Benitez. “Mayor Bloomberg cares about his image. Put the media spotlight on these people. You have to embarrass them.”

Many said they are fearful that the hospital that responds to their calls for help “before 911” and “before the firefighters” won’t be there when they get sick, or if the city suffers another terrorist attack.

Natasha Vanderhorse spoke of her experience visiting hospitals other than St. Vincent’s with her son. 

“[They] told me, ‘We don’t accept Medicaid unless you pay $200.’ I’m like, ‘Goodbye,’” she explained. “Call St. Vincent’s, and you’ve got an appointment...for urology. They’re going to take him with his [Medicaid], where I don’t have to pay, because I don’t make much money.”

Robert P. spoke for St. Vincent’s 12-step recovering community of 3,000 to 4,000 people. He said at least 1,500 people, most of whom live in the neighborhood, regularly attend weekly meetings at the hospital, which provides affordable spaces. The groups meet about alcoholism, depression, domestic violence, obesity, suicide and even hoarding.

“By hosting a variety of 12-step fellowships, St. Vincent’s is saving lives,” he said. The surrounding community can’t absorb all these recovery groups, he said. “Without St. Vincent’s, many of these meetings would just cease to exist, putting the lives of many of those in recovery at risk.” 

Robert noted that many of the 50 recovery groups have voluntarily offered to pay a small increase in their monthly rent to the hospital. 

“We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” he said.

He also reflected on St. Vincent’s work in the early days of the AIDS crisis. 

“Many of my friends died in St. Vincent’s Hospital in the ’80s from AIDS,” he said. “St. Vincent’s was one of the first hospitals — and, at the time, one of the only hospitals — in New York City to open its doors to people with AIDS and give them a place to die.”

Despite sharing their ideas for possible solutions for St. Vincent’s, many couldn’t help expressing their anger with the overall situation.

“It’s really time for us to take our city back,” Moch said. “For those of us who aren’t rich to say, ‘This is our city, too.’”

Muriel Beach, a co-founder of the local group Senior Outrage Coalition, was, well, simply outraged.

“We are outraged that our government could find money to bail out the banks and AIG, and then paid millions of dollars in bonuses to the very boneheads that caused the problem to begin with,” she said. “But they didn’t have funds last year for senior services.

“We have got to challenge them,” she declared. “We vote them in, and we can vote them out.”


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