LONG BEACH, N.Y. — Officials at the last hospital still closed after Superstorm Sandy are engaged in a nasty public feud with the state Health Department, which says the facility has been bleeding money for years and should merge with its closest competitor if it wants to continue providing health services.
Meanwhile, residents in Long Beach, a suburban city of 33,000 just outside New York City, have collected 11,000 signatures for a petition demanding a resolution. Hospital officials plan to meet with state Health Department officials Friday in an attempt to broker a truce.
"We want the hospital open as it was," said retiree Dan Dickerson, who helped collect signatures from his neighbors, many of whom are worried that the next nearest hospital in Oceanside, while only about 7 miles away, can take as long as 40 minutes in heavy traffic.
The Long Beach Medical Center, a 162-bed facility located on a waterfront channel near the Atlantic Ocean, suffered heavy flooding damage in the October storm. The hospital's basement was inundated with seawater, destroying the building's boiler plant and morgue and forcing officials to move the pharmacy to the third floor. The building's sprinkler system had to be replaced because of concerns that saltwater might have compromised pipes.
Bellevue Hospital, NYU Medical Center, Coney Island Hospital and a Veterans Affairs facility in Manhattan were also forced to close after flood damage from the storm. NYU reopened in late December, while the Bellevue and Coney Island hospitals reopened early this year. Two New Jersey hospitals also closed briefly.
Officials estimate repairs at the Long Beach hospital could run as high as $100 million, though the Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to fund a majority of the cost. The closure has idled hundreds of workers and forced ambulances to take emergency patients longer distances to other hospitals. The Long Beach hospital had about 140,000 patient visits in 2011.
The Health Department insists the hospital's financial problems, not Sandy, led to the current stalemate.
"What Sandy did was accelerate what ultimately would have happened; they would have had to change their business model sooner or later, due to the serious fiscal and operational issues they face," said spokesman Bill Schwarz.
The hospital's target date for reopening has been pushed back several times, with officials at first citing delays on unanticipated repairs of the building's sprinkler and alarm systems and the need to relocate some operations to higher floors to prevent a repeat of Sandy's flood damage.
The feud with state regulators, which apparently has been simmering for some time, was publicly revealed in June, when the hospital's board of directors placed an advertisement in local newspapers declaring that the state Health Department "does not want LBMC to reopen as an acute care hospital."
The full-page ad claimed all temporary repairs to enable a reopening have been completed and blamed the state for blocking its return.
The ad provoked a scathing response from state Health Commissioner Nirav R. Shah, who said in a letter to the board that fiscal problems "have plagued the hospital since long before the storm." LBMC ranks ninth on the state's list of financially distressed hospitals and has had annual losses of more than $2 million since 2008, he said.
None of the other hospitals damaged by Sandy appear on the state's distressed list, though Schwarz noted that the VA hospital and several New York City facilities don't fall under its jurisdiction.
"LBMC has failed to produce a financially and operationally sustainable health care business model and plan that would meet the needs of the Long Beach community," Shah said.
He also cited "serious concerns about patient quality and safety at LBMC."
Shah claimed that while patient admissions have steadily dropped in recent years, the hospital "continues to admit patients suffering from chronic conditions such as diabetes and asthma, who are often best treated on an outpatient basis and who would be had they gone to another facility."
The hospital admitted more than 5,500 patients in 2005. By 2011, that number had dropped to just over 4,000.
The commissioner suggested LBMC merge with South Nassau Communities Hospital in nearby Oceanside, though the goal is that some limited services would still be available in Long Beach. The extent of the limited services is up for debate.
"LBMC insists that it wants to reopen as an acute care facility, but has failed to provide the information to demonstrate that such a plan is viable," Shah said.
Mark Head, spokesman for South Nassau Communities Hospital, confirmed merger talks were ongoing but cited a "nondisclosure agreement" in not providing details or a timetable for a resolution. He said his facility has seen increases in the number of patients seeking care since the Long Beach hospital closed.
"But it's not enough to create an undue burden," Head said.
LBMC spokeswoman Sharon Player said the board of directors isn't opposed to a merger, but she insisted that the Long Beach community requires an emergency department and supporting clinical services, including laboratory services, X-ray machines and other amenities. The hospital has already proposed cutting capacity in half, she said.
She said the hospital has lost money in recent years, in part because 80 percent of all admissions are patients on Medicaid and Medicare, which pay lower reimbursements than private insurance companies.
She noted that ordinarily when the state wants to close a hospital, the Health Department must hold public hearings before taking action. That is not the case here, Player said.
"LBMC was not on their radar," Player said. "The storm has made it convenient for them to take 162 beds."