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Steward-Operated Boston Hospitals Closing Would Be ‘Catastrophe,’ Officials, Experts Say

The Boston City Council meets in Boston City Hall. During a council hearing Thursday, officials and experts said the Steward Health Care financial crisis could be disastrous for health care provision in Boston.
The Boston City Council meets in Boston City Hall. During a council hearing Thursday, officials and experts said the Steward Health Care financial crisis could be disastrous for health care provision in Boston. By Julian J. Giordano
By Jina H. Choe and Jack R. Trapanick, Crimson Staff Writers

Experts and local leaders called the threat of two Boston hospitals’ closures a potential “catastrophe” at a city council hearing Thursday as Massachusetts officials respond to an ongoing financial crisis at one of the state’s largest hospital chains.

St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton and Carney Hospital in Dorchester are both at risk of closure following reports last month that Steward Health Care, a national for-profit hospital chain, is behind $50 million on rent in its Massachusetts locations.

The chain’s financial trouble has made its viability a top issue among local leaders over the last month as they work to keep its nine Massachusetts hospitals open.

At the hearing, city councilors, hospital employees, public health officials, and policy experts explored the wide range of ramifications of a potential closure on the city, from patients’ health to the local economy.

“We couldn't possibly suffer the blow of losing what St. Elizabeth's brings to our community,” said Ellen MacInnis, a board member of the Massachusetts Nursing Association and registered nurse at St. Elizabeth’s.

Councilor Elizabeth “Liz” A. Breadon, whose district covers Allston and Brighton, noted that St. Elizabeth’s is the largest employer in her district and has existed there for over a century. She also pointed out the burden St. Elizabeth and Carney Hospitals’ closures would place on other health care institutions in the city.

“If this system goes down, there’s no way that they can pick up and provide service for 200,000 patients a year,” Breadon said.

Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, Chief of the Boston Public Health Commission, said Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge is the closest hospital to St. Elizabeth’s and its closure would add a “time delay” for people and ambulances getting to the hospital.

Earlier this month, Steward announced that they had found enough money to keep all its hospitals in the state open. Despite their announcement, some officials have remained skeptical, and the threat of the hospitals’ closures remained a consistent theme in testimony during the hearing.

Panelists also put blame for the crisis on both the state, which they accused of inadequate oversight and regulation, and the for-profit healthcare model more broadly.

On Tuesday, Massachusetts Governor Maura T. Healey ’92 demanded the immediate disclosure of financial documents in a letter to Steward CEO Ralph de la Torre.

“This is not a new issue. For years, you have refused to engage in the same level of basic transparency that every other system in Massachusetts offers by not releasing your audited financial statements,” Healey wrote.

She added that refusing to release the documents is “an affront to the patients, works, and communities that the Steward hospitals serve” and “creates a major roadblock to our ability to work together to resolve this effectively.

In addition to the release of financial documents, Healey called on de la Torre to permit expanded monitoring by the Department of Public Health with “full collaboration and compliance” and guarantee supply levels as well as safe staffing at each Steward facility in Massachusetts.

Steward Executive Vice President Michael G. Callum responded to the allegations that they did not comply with state regulations in a letter to Healey on Thursday which was obtained by the Eagle Tribune.

In the letter, Callum listed materials that Steward Health Care gave to the Attorney General and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services in the past two months, including financial documents from the end of 2017 to 2022.

“We remain committed to continuing an open process with you and your administration, and will continue to share as much as possible given various regulatory and contractual constraints we are obligated to honor,” Callum wrote in the letter.

Callum indicated that Steward would comply with a potential transfer of ownership of its hospitals.

Despite the risks highlighted in the hearing, officials stressed that both hospitals remain open and fully functional for the foreseeable future.

Breadon said that state law would require notice of at least four months prior to the closure of either hospital, adding that “there is a process, and none of these hospitals are going to close imminently.”

While the hearing also explored ways forward, officials admitted the city had no direct authority over the hospitals, which instead fell under state power.

For some local health organizations, the potential closures remain top of mind without further communication from state and local officials. A spokesperson for Charles Community Health Center in Allston wrote in an emailed statement that they do not have capacity to take the extra load in the event of service reductions from St. Elizabeth’s.

New ownership might mean “those patients and needs would fall through the cracks,” he wrote.

—Staff writer Jina H. Choe can be reached at jina.choe@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Jack R. Trapanick can be reached at jack.trapanick@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jackrtrapanick.

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