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Peninsula rally cries fall on deaf city ears

City Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah (standing) and the Department of Health panel listened to many concerned residents before Shah abruptly left two hours before the hearing was scheduled to end. Photo by Steve Mosco
TimesLedger Newspapers

Hundreds of Rockaway residents sickened by the closure of Peninsula Hospital aimed their ire directly at the city Department of Health at a public hearing last week.

“This is a human being issue. People are going to die,” said Linda Ruscillo, a Rockaway resident at the hearing, at a packed Knights of Columbus Hall, at 333 Beach 90th St.

Residents expressed concern that lives will be in danger as an influx of visitors flood the Rockaways during the summer months.

Bernie Feuer, who operates a parking lot during the summer in Jacob Riis Park, said bridge gridlock will block any ambulances that are diverted to other hospitals.

“What will happen when time is of the essence?” he asked. “If an ambulance is diverted off the peninsula during a traffic jam, they are not going to get out of Rockaway. Now is the time for leaders to step up and do what is right.”

Peninsula Hospital in Far Rockaway closed its doors in April, close to 104 years after it first opened in the beach community. The shuttering of the 173-bed facility, which employed about 1,000 people, leaves one hospital on the peninsula: St. John’s Episcopal in Far Rockaway.

City Health Commissioner Nirav Shah was on the receiving end of much of the criticism from both residents and elected officials last Thursday, many of whom said the public hearing should have been held before the hospital shut its doors in April.

Before abruptly leaving at 5 p.m. — a full two hours before the scheduled end of the hearing — Shah said the peninsula has suffered from a lack of health care for too long.

“I wish there was a silver bullet that could solve the health care issues of this peninsula,” he said. “We are doing all that we can to ensure proper health care for this community.”

Shah’s comments were not well-received — especially when attendees realized the commissioner slipped out of the hearing without making his exit public.

“I’m disappointed that Mr. Shah did not see fit to stay past 5 p.m. In my opinion, four hours is not too much to ask when you are a public servant,” said City Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park). “He is the commissioner, he is a public servant. He works for us, we do not work for him.”

Ulrich said many of his constituents used Peninsula Hospital as their primary care facility. He said he fears many will not make it to other area hospitals when their lives are on the line in an emergency situation.

“Closing Peninsula adds critical minutes to every ambulance ride,” he said. “The fact that the hospital remains shuttered with no emergency room and no plan that we know of is reprehensible and unacceptable. And the fact that we don’t have a plan coming from the Department of Health is inexcusable.”

The hearing was convened in accordance with the Hospital Closure Act, which requires a community meeting hosted by the Health Department. A report will be generated based on the public comments.

Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at smosco@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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