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St. John’s Hospital in Far Rockaway gets a reprieve

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Outside St. John’s Episcopal Hospital in Far Rockaway at a news conference turned pep rally on March 5, elected and hospital officials announced that the medical facility that was being pressured by the New York State Department of Health to become  a 15-bed “micro hospital” the plan has stalled.

“I’m happy to say based on the work of all us coming together, and that means our elected  officials who came together when we got the news, including the staff of St. John’s, and most importantly you the community, because of you we have got a reprieve on keeping St. John’s Hospital open,” said Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, to applause and cheers.

The Department of Health offered  St. John’s, the only hospital on the Rockaway Peninsula, since Peninsula Hospital closed nearly nine years ago, and serves 130,000 people including the Five Towns, three options.

A reduced-capacity model with 91 medical/surgery beds and no labor/delivery services or pediatrics; a micro-hospital with 15 medical/surgery beds and 43 beds for behavioral health patients — the option the Health Department is pushing for, according to hospital officials; or a “healthplex,” or behavioral health outpatient facility, with 30 beds and further reduced services. Any one of the options would cut 1,000 jobs from the hospital’s current workforce of roughly 1,700.

Richards, and a group of fellow Democrats that included Rep. Gregory Meeks,  whose district includes St. John’s, and State Sen. James Sanders and Assembly people Khaleel Anderson and Stacey Pheffer Amato met with Gov. Andrew Cuomo after the Health Department's plan became public.

“When the word came out, we all got together and said this can’t happen,” Meeks said, adding that the micro hospital plan “makes no sense.” The primary reasons the plan should be a no-go he said include the existing health disparities between Rockaway communities and others across the city, the geographic isolation of the Rockaway Peninsula, increased residential development creating an uptick in the population and the existence of only one hospital to serve the Peninsula.

A plan that appears to have been fostered on St. John’s because of the State DoH’s reliance on a analytical forecast conducted by ToneyKorf Partners last year shortly after the coronavirus pandemic began that concluded, “that only immediate and aggressive actions, coupled with additional external funding, can prevent a complete financial crisis for many health care organizations,” including safety net hospitals such as St. John’s.

A majority of the hospital’s patients are covered by Medicare or Medicaid. According to hospital statistics, 90 percent of its patients have government insurance, and some have no insurance. The Queens Zip code 11691, which falls within the hospital’s area of care, has the second-highest Covid-19 death toll in New York City, according to the City Department of Health.

In 2018, the DoH contacted the St. John’s about conducting a financial sustainability assessment in 2018, with the goal of reducing state funding for the facility. Toney Korf conducted that analysis of the hospital’s finances. As a result, St. John’s instituted a $24 million cost savings plan that included laying off management staff early last year, just before the pandemic hit.

Dr. Richard Becker, called a team member by TonyKorf, was appointed the deputy secretary of Health & Human Services for the state in August of last year.

“The Department of Health has been working with the management of St. John's Episcopal for several years in an effort to achieve improved health outcomes and access in the Far Rockaways,” spokeswoman Erin Silk said in an email. “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 Right Rev. Lawrence Provenzano, chairman of the hospital’s board of directors, thanked everyone for their support of the hospital, specifically Cuomo and state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker for the reprieve. “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,” Provenzano said.