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Shutting down urban hospitals of last resort

September 23, 2020

Topics: Quote of the Day

By Jordan Rau and Emmarie Huetteman
Kaiser Health News, September 17, 2020

While rural hospitals have been closing at a quickening pace over the past two decades, a number of inner-city hospitals now face a similar fate. And experts fear that the economic damage inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic on safety-net hospitals and the ailing finances of the cities and states that subsidize them are helping push some urban hospitals over the edge.

By the nature of their mission, safety-net hospitals, wherever they are, struggle because they treat a large share of patients who are uninsured — and can’t pay bills — or are covered by Medicaid, whose payments don’t cover costs. But metropolitan hospitals confront additional threats beyond what rural hospitals do. State-of-the-art hospitals in affluent city neighborhoods are luring more of the safety-net hospitals’ best-insured patients.

These combined financial pressures have been exacerbated by the pandemic at a time their role has become more important: Their core patients — the poor and people of color — have been disproportionately stricken by COVID-19.

Founded 168 years ago as the city’s first hospital, Mercy Hospital & Medical Center survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 but is succumbing to modern economics, which have underfinanced the hospitals serving the poor. In July, the 412-bed hospital informed state regulators it planned to shutter all inpatient services as soon as February.

Mercy is following the same lethal path as did two other hospitals with largely lower-income patient bases that shuttered last year: Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia, and Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., which ended its inpatient services. Washington’s only public hospital, United Medical Center — in the city’s poorest ward — is slated to close in 2023 as well, and some services are already curtailed.

Fifty-five percent of Chicagoans living in poverty and 62% of its African American residents live within Mercy’s service area, according to Mercy’s 2019 community needs assessment, a federally mandated report. The neighborhoods served by Mercy are distinguished by higher rates of death from diabetes, cancer and stroke. Babies are more likely to be born early and at low weight or die in infancy.

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Comment:

By Don McCanne, M.D.

One of the advantages of a well designed, single payer Medicare for All program is that central planning and separate budgeting of capital improvements and facilities are part of the program. Infrastructure improvements are based on medical need rather than based on investment opportunities for venture capitalists and other rent-seekers. As costly as our health care system is, we should be doing better in getting our health care resources to where they are needed.

As we revitalize our health care system, it is appropriate that extra attention be paid to ensuring that deficiencies due to racial inequities and poverty be addressed. Shutting down urban hospitals that serve these needs is certainly not the right way to go about it.

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About the Commentator, Don McCanne

Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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