Today’s news:

Guv vetoes bill on closing of hospitals alert

Gov. David Paterson vetoed Friday a bill that would have required the state to notify communities about hospital closings and issue plans for filling the gap in health-care services in the affected areas, prompting criticism from the legislation’s sponsor, state Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows).

Lancman said Paterson’s decision was especially worrisome in light of Queens’ recent loss of two major hospitals, Mary Immaculate in Jamaica and St. John’s in Elmhurst. Caritas Healthcare Network, which owned the two hospitals, at the end of February filed for bankruptcy protection and began the process of liquidating its assets within weeks.

“The governor’s veto is very disappointing and leaves the 2 million residents of Queens in the dark about how the health care services, which were lost when Mary Immaculate and St. John’s hospitals closed, will be made up for,” Lancman said.

The Hospital Closure Planning Act would have mandated the state Department of Health to hold hearings in communities affected by a hospital’s closing and issue a report within 60 days that would outline how the state would compensate for the loss.

The Assembly passed the bill in June and the state Senate in September. It was proposed by Lancman in the wake of three borough hospitals — St. John’s, Mary Immaculate and Parkway Hospital in Forest Hills — being shuttered between October 2008 and February 2009.

Paterson in his veto message to the Assembly said he did not approve the bill because the state Department of Health already has “a detailed process in place” that addresses the legislation’s concerns. In order for a medical facility to close, it must submit to the department a closure plan that includes notification to patients, the community, elected officials, union officials, other government agencies, physicians and staff, nursing homes, ambulance services, and referral services, Paterson said.

“Before approving any closure plan, DOH conducts an impact assessment on the ongoing ability of community residents, including uninsured and underserved populations, to access needed health care,” Paterson said in the veto statement. “…I believe the DOH process is thorough and robust, and I believe the alternate process proposed by the bill would be both burdensome and redundant.”

But Lancman and City Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows) said the bill is needed, especially in a community that is suffering what Lancman has called a health care crisis.

“This law would make the state government more accountable to the people,” Gennaro said. “Through the veto of this good bill, the governor has sent the strong message that he favors unaccountable bureaucrats over the voice of the people. I urge the legislation to override this unfortunate veto.”

Lancman had been concerned Paterson would axe the bill and had regularly communicated with the governor’s office about the legislation in the week leading up to Paterson’s veto.

“I had conversations with the governor’s office about why I thought the bill was necessary, what it did, how it didn’t cost any money,” Lancman said.

Lancman said he plans to work with Paterson’s office about further health care legislation.

“We’d like to sit down with the governor’s office and the Senate and see if going forward we can address the governor’s concerns and see if we can put forward legislation or regulations to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish with this bill,” Lancman said. “The crisis in health care in Queens is not new, so our determination to fix it will not end with this setback.”

Though many elected officials said they wanted to see health care services return to the Mary Immaculate and St. John’s sites, it is unclear what the properties will become. The public auction for the two-acre St. John’s campus and four-acre Mary Immaculate site is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 16. The starting bid for St. John’s is $13.5 million and $4.35 million for Mary Immaculate.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 174.

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