Villager photo by Lincoln Anderson
At left, North Shore’s Jeremy Boal and Mark Solazzo listened as Brad Hoylman spoke at Monday night’s meeting. Standing against the wall, second from the right, throughout the meeting was Yetta Kurland.
Amid protests, execs explain urgent-care plan
By Lincoln Anderson
Anger over the closing of St. Vincent’s Hospital erupted anew Monday night. On the receiving end this time were executives from North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System presenting plans for an urgent-care facility they hope to open in the former Greenwich Village hospital’s emergency department.
Also in the crosshairs of community fury were Community Board 2, local elected officials, Mayor Bloomberg and the state Department of Health commissioner.
A crowd of about 125 people packed into the Little Red School House’s auditorium, at Bleecker St. and Sixth Ave., to hear the presentation — but many also came to reiterate their demand for a full-service replacement hospital. The meeting was held by C.B. 2’s St. Vincent’s Omnibus Committee.
Under a state-approved plan, North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System — which just merged with the struggling Lenox Hill Hospital — will operate the urgent-care center, which will provide community healthcare, but won’t handle life-threatening emergencies. For life-threatening emergencies and other conditions that the urgent-care clinic isn’t equipped to treat, two ambulances will be posted outside the clinic and will transport patients to area hospitals.
Mark Solazzo, chief operating officer and senior vice president of North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, said they are currently in discussions with U.S. Bankruptcy Court to get approval to open the urgent-care center in the former St. Vincent’s emergency department, on Seventh Ave., between 11th and 12th Sts. All of St. Vincent’s real estate is part of the bankrupt former hospital’s assets, to be used to pay off its massive debt of $1 billion, which forced the 161-year-old institution to close its doors on April 30.
Solazzo said they hope they’ll get the court’s approval within two weeks, after which it would take another six to eight weeks before they have the urgent-care center up and running. However, the location at the former St. Vincent’s site would only be temporary, he noted.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen with the St. Vincent’s property. Frankly, they don’t even want us in there,” he said, referring to Bankruptcy Court.
Solazzo said North Shore wants to find a permanent home somewhere nearby — “in the shadows of St. Vincent’s,” as he put — within the next six months.
The permanent facility would be about 15,000 square feet, he said, and if it were a bit larger, could also offer radiation and screenings. It would take about a year to construct, he noted. In the meantime, he said, North Shore would pay market-rate rent for the St. Vincent’s space, with the rent going to the Bankruptcy Court, toward paying off St. Vincent’s debt.
Despite the efforts of Brad Hoylman, the St. Vincent’s Omnibus Committee’s chairperson, to maintain order, there were frequent audience outbursts and interruptions throughout the two-hour meeting.
“I understand this community does want its hospital back — but that’s not our role,” Solazzo said. “Our urgent-care center is not like a ‘doc-in-the-box,’” he assured.
“Oh puh-leeze!” a woman in the audience groaned cynically.
Dr. Jeremy Boal, Long Island Jewish Medical Center’s medical director, acknowledged, “We can only give a fraction of what St. Vincent’s offered. We haven’t been given license [by the state] to do more than that. We know that people are scared and concerned.”
“No! — I’m angry!” a male voice in the audience blurted out indignantly.
“We are not afraid of being yelled at,” Boal answered.
“You came to the right place,” Hoylman quipped, to some light laughter from the audience.
At one point, Hoylman asked about removing someone who kept shouting out and interrupting, but Hoylman eventually decided to just give up and no one was ejected. While he tried to call on questioners from the audience, many people just shouted out their questions and accusations unsolicited.
Former Act Up gay activist Mel Stevens was one of the most vocal disrupters, during one period virtually taking over the meeting with his outbursts. Wearing a yellow baseball cap and sitting in the front row, Stevens bellowed, “It’s unacceptable!” and “Shut up!” at the North Shore executives. He urged people to go to Albany and demand action.
“We have to go up there and take over [Health Commissioner Richard] Daines’s office,” he declared.
But others wanted to get information on what North Shore was offering, and were annoyed at all the shouting. During one such outburst, an elderly woman called out in a frail voice, “I’d like to hear what they have to say.”
Boal said the center will be open 365 days a year, 24/7. If someone is stricken with a case of pneumonia at night or severe abdominal pain that could signal appendicitis or a terrible headache, for example, they would be able to seek treatment at the urgent-care center, he said.
“We will take all insurances,” Solazzo assured. “We will take all patients, regardless of ability to pay.”
Solazzo said the urgent-care facility wouldn’t make money for the nonprofit North Shore, saying, on the contrary, it would “lose a couple of million dollars” providing the services. Later, he said the facility would lose $1 million a year.
However, Eileen Dunn, a former St. Vincent’s nurse and board member of the New York State Nurses Association, interjected that, in fact, North Shore and Lenox Hill have been promised more than $9 million from the state to run the urgent-care clinic.
Audience members repeatedly asked for North Shore to open a hospital instead of just an urgent-care clinic. Solazzo said he’d be happy at some point to “discuss the economic realities” of starting a hospital, but he added, “I am not in a position to say North Shore can open a hospital with you.”
Solazzo said North Shore got interested in providing an urgent-care center in the Village area after it merged with Lenox Hill, since the merger gave North Shore a Manhattan presence. However, he noted, the state did not give the required approval for a hospital there.
“The state did not ask for [a hospital], nor did they want it,” he said, eliciting boos from the audience. Solazzo also noted that North Shore has hospitals that lose money and others that make money, and can only take on so many financial liabilities.
Jim Fouratt, a gay activist and Village Independent Democrats club member, stated, “As you know, most of the community is against an urgent-care center.”
Robin Carpenter, an Army veteran, said, “You are not listening to the needs of the people. You are basically creating what you want. A hospital is required. Where is the mayor? Where is he?”
Julie Menin, chairperson of Community Board 1, asked, with St. Vincent’s — which had a Level 1 trauma center — closed, what would North Shore do in the case of a terrorist attack, “knowing that Lower Manhattan is a target.”
Boal said North Shore has “a massive command center” that is integrated with “the feds.”
While conceding, “There is no substitute for a hospital,” which earned some cheers, Solazzo said, in the case of terrorism, the first priority would be to get patients out of the affected area as fast as possible.
A question was posed about that status of St. Vincent’s O’Toole building, the quirky, modernist, former maritime union building with porthole-style windows on the west side of Seventh Ave. between 12th and 13th Sts. Solazzo said he didn’t have answers on O’Toole either, because they’re not getting any word from Bankruptcy Court.
Representatives of three local community health centers informed the audience about how they are upgrading their services to help fill the healthcare vacuum left by St. Vincent’s closure. The centers include Ryan Chelsea-Clinton Community Health Center, at 46th St. and Tenth Ave.; Charles B. Wang Community Health Center, with three locations in Chinatown; and Ryan-Nena Community Health Center, in the East Village.
In all, four community health centers are getting a total of $4.6 million from the state to help fill the gap. The centers are increasing their hours and staffing, and have added Saturday hours, said Karen Westervelt, Ryan-Chelsea Clinton executive director.
However, when one elderly man sitting in the audience, a cane propped between his legs, heard the Ryan-Chelsea Clinton center is all the way up on 46th St., he remarked to himself, “Might as well just go to Roosevelt [Hospital]” on W. 59th St.
“We can never replace St. Vincent’s Hospital, but we can help,” said Karen Gruber, executive director of Ryan-Nena.
Throughout the meeting, Yetta Kurland, the activist who is leading the Coalition for a New Village Hospital, stood on the side. She had urged people to turn out at the meeting to voice their demand for a new hospital, as opposed to an urgent-care center. After the meeting had run about an hour, people in the audience started shouting — “Yetta! Yetta! Yetta!” — for Kurland to be allowed to ask questions.
Kurland said her question was really for C.B. 2 because she felt the premise of the meeting was wrong — that is, learning about an urgent-care center, instead of fighting for a hospital. But she said she wants to work with C.B. 2 toward that end of getting a new hospital, noting, “Let’s set them [the board]up for success, because we’re going to keep coming back.”
Kurland said she wanted to set up a time to talk with C.B. 2 about the community’s healthcare needs.
“You’re at the meeting!” Hoylman responded.
“Set the date!” an audience member shouted out.
“We support Yetta!” someone else yelled.
After one heated moment, North Shore’s Solazzo noted, “We don’t have to put the community healthcare center [in the Village]. And if the community doesn’t want it… .”
“Good!” came a shout, and claps. “Yes! Join with us!” a woman yelled.
Solazzo said, first, a health-needs assessment study would be required, or else the request for a hospital would just get shot down in bureaucratic red tape. But Dunn said there already is a study, in that the Berger Commission twice stated that St. Vincent’s was a needed hospital. Dunn and others pressed Solazzo on whether he personally thought the Lower West Side needed a hospital, and he finally admitted that he thought it did, saying Manhattan’s hospitals could be better spaced out geographically.
“If you could take a hospital from the East Side and plop it down here, that would be a much better thing,” the North Shore C.O.O. said. “I think it’s an absolute shame that St. Vincent’s closed, because I think that St. Vincent’s was needed down here.”
Still, Solazzo said, even if St. Vincent’s were to emerge from the bankruptcy process debt free, it would still take hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the former hospital’s facilities to acceptable condition.
“The reason we don’t have a hospital is because Bloomberg wants that real estate to go to Rudin!” someone in the audience shouted.
Before St. Vincent’s went belly up, the Rudin Organization had partnered with the hospital in a plan under which Rudin would have developed the hospital’s main campus residentially, while money from Rudin’s purchase of the property would have helped fund construction of a new, centralized, modern hospital building on the O’Toole site.
Afterward, asked by The Villager if North Shore was really considering abandoning its plan for the Village urgent-care center, Solazzo said, “No. This is one meeting. Some people are very against it. Some are for it.”
During the meeting, Solazzo said North Shore doesn’t go into places where it doesn’t plan to stay long term.
Afterward, Hoylman called it one of the toughest meetings he has ever chaired, acknowledging there was “palpable anger” in the room. He said, in fact, the anger ironically was only equaled by that at the earlier meeting he chaired when St. Vincent’s first unveiled its plans for its rebuilding project, where some residents called for St. Vincent’s to “Get out of the Village!”
Hoylman added, “It’s more cathartic, I guess, to cast blame and point fingers, but I think we really need to roll up our sleeves and get realistic about this issue. The time for grandstanding has passed. The community board is committed to seeing this through to completion and getting the best, most comprehensive facility possible.”