Legislators support South Nassau’s plan for FEMA funds

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U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice and Nassau County Legislator Denise Ford have backed a plan to spend $130 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds on hospital upgrades in Oceanside and $40 million on a medical arts pavilion in Long Beach, despite opposition from many Long Beach residents.

Local people have expressed the need for a community hospital on the barrier island after the Long Beach Medical Center was heavily damaged during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and have argued that the $170 million in FEMA funds were meant to restore medical services on the barrier island, not elsewhere.

But officials at South Nassau Communities Hospital, which was awarded the FEMA funding when it bought the 162-bed LBMC out of bankruptcy in 2014 for $11.8 million, have said that a new hospital in Long Beach would not be sustainable and would lose money every year, and instead plan to build a medical pavilion that would include a 9,500-square-foot emergency department.

Rice (D-Garden City) and Ford (R-Long Beach) co-signed a letter to FEMA on July 5 supporting the decision to use a majority of the federal money on South Nassau’s Oceanside campus, where the emergency department would be expanded from 16,000 to 30,000 square feet and the critical care unit bolstered from 22 beds to 46.

“SNCH’s proposal to build a Medical Arts Pavilion, establish a permanent emergency department in Long Beach, and improve their hospital in Oceanside is the most viable option to ensure Long Beach residents have access to quality health care now and in the future,” they wrote.

At a public forum in February, an overwhelming number of residents, along with members of the Long Beach City Council, voiced opposition to the proposed allocation of disaster relief funds. Many claimed that the temporary stand-alone emergency facility that South Nassau opened in Long Beach last August is inadequate, and cannot accept ambulances with patients suffering from certain “time critical” medical conditions, including trauma, stroke and isolated hip fractures.

The new medical pavilion, a 911-receiving facility that would operate 24 hours a day, is expected to open in 2019, and would also offer X-ray and CT imaging capabilities, and may include services such as dialysis, behavioral health and family medicine.

“SNCH has assessed the specific health care needs of Long Beach and is proposing to put services tailored to those residents in the medical pavilion,” Rice and Ford wrote. “In addition, improving the Oceanside facility, which is not only the sole Level II Trauma Center on Nassau’s South Shore but also a designated Stroke Center, will better serve both Long Beach and the greater community.”

But many have posed concerns about the future medical pavilion similar to those about the current facility, noting that the barrier island is isolated and needs its own hospital. Members of the Beach to Bay Central Council of Civic Associations — which has heavily advocated for the cause — filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against FEMA in U.S. District Court in Central Islip last month, claiming that it violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment by allowing the funds to be spent in Oceanside and disregarding community input.

SNCH officials have said the money can be spent in Oceanside due to “alternative use” legislation introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer after Sandy, and maintain that a regional hospital with local ambulatory hubs is the trend in health care.

An independent study, presented at the February community meeting by South Nassau officials, determined that a local hospital would not have sufficient patient volume in many specialty areas — aside from hip and knee replacements — to produce quality outcomes. Prior to being heavily damaged by Sandy, Long Beach Medical Center was a troubled institution, losing some $11 million per year, leading many to question whether a rebuilt hospital could sustain itself.

“We agree with your finding that ‘the entire community would benefit from the renovations and mitigation’ to both the Long Beach and Oceanside sites with minor impact to either community,” Rice and Ford wrote to FEMA, “and we believe the improvements proposed by SNCH will ensure better access to care than was available to Long Beach residents before Sandy hit.”

Beach to Bay President Barbara Bernardino told the Herald that she was both surprised and disappointed by the legislators’ stance on the issue, but she hoped to continue working with them and the community in this process.

“Our elected officials have an opportunity to stand with the community or a corporation, that’s their right … but the community and Beach to Bay feel that that allocation is totally unfair,” Bernardino said. “It was perfectly clear that FEMA was supposed to replace what was lost. It was a hospital, not an urgent-care, not a free-standing emergency room. That’s not what we had.”

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