Told to Reinvent Themselves, Brooklyn Hospitals Continue to Struggle

Brooklyn is close to losing two large and historic hospitals -- despite the efforts of community activists, elected officials, and blue-ribbon panels to keep them open. A mix of economics, politics and long-term healthcare trends has been shuttering hospitals around the region for decades and could claim more Brooklyn institutions in the years ahead.

“If a hospital is serving a low-income community, it probably has a fair number of patients who are not paying – who are uninsured – so, left on its own, a hospital serving a low-income community is going to be financially in distress,” said Jim Tallon, president of the United Hospital Fund of New York.

Interfaith Medical Center, which has been in bankruptcy since December, followed a state order on Thursday to submit a closure plan to the New York state Department of Health. The timetable for shutting down has not yet been disclosed, as regulators review the plan.

SUNY Downstate has been trying to close Long Island College Hospital, in Cobble Hill, since March – over the objections of hospital workers and community supporters. SUNY Downstate, whose flagship hospital and medical school is located in East Flatbush, four miles away, has been losing millions of dollars a year, and has said selling off LICH is a crucial part of restructuring what’s left of the system.

In addition to LICH and Interfaith, there is a long list of financially troubled hospitals in Brooklyn, including Brookdale, Wyckoff Heights, Brooklyn Hospital Center and Kingsbrook Jewish.

A special panel appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2011 outlined the economic and demographic challenges facing all these institutions and anticipated more closures. The panel’s final report said Brooklyn’s hospitals weren’t serving the healthcare needs of the borough’s residents.

“You want a network of outpatient clinics and ‘surgi centers’ and primary care linked to different kinds of inpatient facilities, and much smaller inpatient facilities with much smaller lengths of stay,” panel chair Stephen Berger told WNYC late last year. “Now, you don’t do this overnight, it takes several years to build things and change things out and change concepts.”

The report said despite a glut of hospitals, these institutions could still survive and play a valuable role – if they joined forces and consolidated their services. A series of proposed mergers generated negotiations that all came to naught.

“The concept of merging was to buy us some time and transition to a new system,” Berger said. “But no one’s been willing to merge, and everybody’s been resistant. People would rather hang on by their fingernails.”

At the same time, a few Brooklyn hospitals are doing relatively well – or at least breaking even, including New York Presbyterian-Methodist, Maimonides and Lutheran.

Berger’s panel singled out Lutheran, in particular, for creating a network of family health centers.