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Detroit hospital closing part of pattern

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By SVEN GUSTAFSON, Associated Press Writer

Sat Jun 9, 10:15 PM ET

DETROIT - Her legs crippled by diabetes, Mary Lewis is grateful it's a short distance between her doctor's office at Riverview Hospital and the adjacent apartment tower where she lives.

It will become a painful struggle next year when the hospital closes and physicians' offices are forced to move. The hospital last week said it was losing too much money and already stopped accepting inpatients, though the emergency room will remain open for now.

Because roughly 90 percent of its 11,000 annual inpatients are covered under the Medicare or Medicaid public assistance programs, Riverview has struggled economically, said Bob Hoban, a senior vice president for St. John Health, Riverview's parent company.

Experts say Riverview's decision to close fits a distressing, decades-long pattern of hospital closures in older cities across the nation. The trend has left large swaths of predominantly poor, black neighborhoods in cities such as St. Louis, Philadelphia and Cleveland underserved.

Many say the loss of medical facilities for low-income patients is increasingly leaving overcrowded emergency rooms to double as primary-care centers.

"This hasn't been happening in the suburbs and it isn't happening in Phoenix, Arizona, where they can't build hospitals fast enough," said Bruce Siegel, a research professor at the George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "This is occurring in older, urban inner-city areas."

New York City, Philadelphia and parts of New Jersey have seen waves of hospital closings in inner-city neighborhoods, said Siegel, who directed a 2004 report examining the phenomenon for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

But few cities have been hit as hard as Detroit.

The number of hospitals in the city has dwindled to seven or eight from 42 in 1960, said Alan Sager, director of the Health Reform Program at Boston University's School of Public Health. Hospitals that are larger, have major medical school-affiliated teaching programs and more money in the bank tend to survive.

Siegel's report warned that Detroit's safety net was already in a "fragile" state and could collapse entirely with further hospital closures. It said Detroit had lost more than 1,200 hospital beds with the closure of four hospitals since 1998.

"Some of it is population shifts and declines," Siegel said. "There's (also) more and more people without health insurance and Medicaid payments that don't keep up with the cost of providing care."

Riverview, a community hospital with 285 beds, specializes in general medical and surgical services, such as treatment of congestive heart failure, diabetes and obstetrics.

The hospital finished its last fiscal year with a nearly $9.5 million deficit and expects to end this fiscal year $23 million in the red.

Medicare payments to hospitals averaged 92 cents for every dollar spent providing care in 2005, the most recent figures available, according to the American Hospital Association. Medicaid's reimbursement rate was lower, at 87 cents per dollar.

Officials at other area hospitals have complained that Riverview's closing will burden them.

"We're 90 percent full on average and there are many days where we're 100 percent full," said Nancy Schlichting, president and chief executive of Henry Ford Health System, which has a trauma center hospital in Detroit.

Karmanos Cancer Institute plans to spend $20 million to renovate the 20-year-old Riverview and reopen it as a clinical center next year.

But Lewis is concerned her doctor's office will be forced to move too far from her home. "I'll have to find another doctor," the senior citizen said.

While waiting for a bus after a physical therapy appointment, Mary Sanders said Riverview is the closest hospital for residents of the east side, including many disabled senior citizens.

The 54-year resident of the neighborhood said she doesn't know where she'll go once the clinic closes.

"Point blank, we need this hospital," she said.

----Do you all see this happening in your community as well? How do you think it will impact the field of nursing????:o

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