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Staff, leaders rally to keep St. John’s open

As the final hours ticked away before the emergency rooms at St. John’s and Mary Immaculate hospitals closed, staff and civic leaders gathered in front of St. John’s Hospital in an unsuccessful bid to get Gov. David Paterson to intervene and the board of parent company Caritas to step down.

Some 50 doctors, nurses and paramedics stood outside the facility’s main entrance in Elmhurst Friday afternoon, directing chants of “shame on you” at absent elected officials such as state Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith (D−St. Albans), who they said has not been returning their phone calls. Several employees were reduced to tears as the rally drew to a close.

The hospitals filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Feb. 6. Employees are now calling for state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli to conduct a forensic audit of Caritas.

Dr. Eli Schessel, former chief of plastic surgery at the hospital, blamed the closings on “inefficient administration and a board of trustees who has no personal interest in our survival and who has negotiated contracts which paid people to fail.”

Robert Holden, president of the Middle Village−based Juniper Park Civic Association, warned that Middle Village and Glendale would both suffer if St. John’s closes and pledged to escalate the fight to keep it open.

“We’ll block Queens Boulevard if we have to,” he said. “They are not going to destroy our neighborhood.”

Staff complained that the hospital’s contracts with Health Maintenance Organizations do not reimburse St. John’s at the same level as hospitals in Manhattan or Long Island.

Patrick Nicolosi, an EMT with St. John’s, said the hospital’s emergency room gets 44,000 patients a year.

“What’s going to happen to 44,000 patients?” he said. “Where are they going to go?”

Alan Aviles, president of the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation, said Friday nearby Elmhurst Hospital Center and Queens Hospital Center in Jamaica Estates are already experiencing significant increases in emergency patients because ambulances have begun to bypass both St. John’s and Mary Immaculate.

“We are in the process of adding staff to the emergency departments in both HHC facilities to better handle the spikes in volume, but we are very concerned about the possibility of longer delays for patients in the ER,” he said.

The city hospitals were talking with the state Health Department about funding to expand both ER staff and bed capacity to accommodate the increase in patients, Aviles said. But City Councilwoman Helen Sears (D−Jackson Heights) has warned that the process of certifying more beds at the hospital could take months.

The two elected officials present for the rally, Sears and Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D−Middle Village),both called on the state to extend funding to the stricken hospitals.

State Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D−Howard Beach) called the closing of the two hospitals “unacceptable” at a Juniper Park Civic meeting last Thursday and warned the response time for residents of Maspeth and Middle Village would increase substantially.

He also said Borough President Helen Marshall asked the city to take over the hospitals, but the mayor declined.

“The NYC public hospital system has already incurred $65 million in state budget cuts in the last year alone and there are significant cuts looming that could reach nearly $300 million more,” Aviles said in a statement. “ We are in no position to assume responsibility for additional healthcare facilities.”

Addabbo also said Long Island Jewish Hospital’s talks to buy St. John’s and raze it to build a new building would take four years

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e−mail at jwalsh@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 154.

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