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Pandemic-Stricken Cities Have Empty Hospitals, But Reopening Them Is Difficult

[UPDATED at 5:30 p.m. ET]

As metropolis leaders throughout the nation scramble to seek out house for the anticipated surge of COVID-19 sufferers, some are a seemingly apparent alternative: former hospital buildings, sitting empty, proper downtown.

In Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Los Angeles, the place hospitalizations from COVID-19 improve every day, shuttered hospitals that when served town’s poor and uninsured sit on the middle of a public well being disaster that begs for precisely what they’ll supply: extra space. But reopening closed hospitals, even in a public well being emergency, is tough.

Philadelphia, the most important metropolis in America with no public hospital, can be the poorest. There, Hahnemann University Hospital shut its doorways in September after its proprietor, Philadelphia Academic Health System, declared chapter. While not public, the 496-bed safety-net hospital primarily handled sufferers on public insurance coverage. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney started talks with the constructing’s proprietor, California-based funding banker Joel Freedman, as quickly as his administration noticed projections that the demand for hospital beds throughout the pandemic would outpace town’s capability. Not lengthy after negotiations began, metropolis officers introduced the talks have been going badly.

“Mr. Freedman was difficult to work with at times when he was the owner of the hospital, and he is still difficult to work with as the owner of the shuttered hospital,” mentioned Brian Abernathy, who’s Philadelphia’s managing director and heading town’s COVID-19 response.

In New Orleans, the place the hovering COVID-19 an infection price is disproportionately excessive in contrast with its inhabitants, Charity Hospital sits vacant in the course of city. The former public hospital by no means reopened after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Louisiana State University System, which owns the constructing, included Charity Hospital into town’s new medical middle, however the authentic constructing stays vacant. Instead of utilizing it throughout the pandemic, the New Orleans Convention Center is being converted to a “step-down” facility with the capability to deal with as much as 2,000 patients after they now not want important care.

Elsewhere, metropolis governments have struck offers with the house owners of empty hospital buildings to lease their house. At St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles, town is paying $236 per night time per mattress, for a complete of $2.6 million every month.

In Philadelphia, Freedman provided the Hahnemann constructing to town for $27 per mattress per night time, plus taxes, upkeep and insurance coverage, which town would pay instantly. All instructed, that added as much as simply over $900,000 per 30 days.

“I think he is looking at how to turn an asset that is earning no revenue into an asset that earns some revenue, and isn’t thinking through what the impacts are on public health,” Abernathy mentioned of Freedman. “I think he’s looking at this as a business transaction rather than providing an imminent and important aid to the city and our residents.”

This isn’t the primary time Freedman has come beneath hearth by Philadelphians for his dealing with of the hospital. Its closure sparked protests from metropolis officers, well being care unions, and even presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. Critics speculated that Freedman, whose personal fairness agency purchased the struggling hospital in 2018, didn’t attempt in earnest to reserve it and deliberate to flip it for its invaluable downtown actual property. Notably, Hahnemann’s actual property was parsed out right into a separate firm, Broad Street Healthcare Properties, additionally owned by Freedman, and never included in Philadelphia Academic Health System’s Chapter 11 chapter petition.

A consultant for Freedman mentioned the constructing has an purchaser, and that’s one purpose Broad Street Healthcare won’t let town use the constructing at price.

“We’re offering this facility because of the public benefit in a health crisis, but it comes at a cost to the property owner,” mentioned Broad Street consultant Sam Singer.

As city hospitals have struggled in recent times, it’s turn into more and more frequent for private equity to get involved: Big corporations purchase struggling medical facilities with the promise of economic assist and to enhance their operations and enterprise technique. When issues go proper, the enterprise succeeds, and the personal fairness agency sells it in a public providing or to a different bidder for greater than it paid.

In different circumstances, although, the corporations load corporations up with debt, take dividends out for themselves, sell off valuable real estate and cost charges and high-interest loans, leaving an organization in a a lot weaker place than it will have been in any other case, and infrequently on the verge of chapter.

“The house never loses,” mentioned Eileen Appelbaum, co-director on the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “The private equity firm makes money whether the company succeeds or it doesn’t.”

For occasion, Steward Health Care was in a position to develop from its base in Massachusetts to a 36-hospital community nationwide with backing from Cerberus Capital Management. Now, mentioned Appelbaum, the chain of neighborhood hospitals is caught paying lease to a separate actual property firm, on all its properties, whereas additionally struggling to remain within the black. The community announced last week it will furlough non-clinical staff throughout 9 states as a result of the requirement to cancel elective surgical procedures brought about too nice a monetary pressure.

Freedman’s personal fairness agency is known as Paladin Healthcare, and it has beforehand purchased and managed hospitals in California and Washington, D.C., the place it helped the struggling Howard University Hospital out of the purple. Paladin then bought the hospital to Adventist HealthCare final summer time.

Urban hospitals like Hahnemann have struggled to remain afloat in recent times, partially as a result of their lack of privately insured sufferers. Hospitals typically finance the care of uninsured sufferers or these on Medicaid by treating these with personal insurance coverage, which reimburses the hospitals sooner and at the next price. At Hahnemann, two-thirds of sufferers have been on Medicaid or Medicare. While a financially struggling public or nonprofit hospital would possibly proceed serving a poorer neighborhood, a for-profit hospital has completely different incentives, mentioned Vickie Williams, a former legislation professor for Gonzaga University.

“If your urban hospital is purchased by a for-profit company and it doesn’t perform sufficiently, they don’t have the same necessarily mission-driven directives to keep that hospital functioning for the good of the community at a loss,” mentioned Williams, who’s now senior counsel for CommonSpirit Health in Tacoma, Washington.

Freedman has mentioned that he tried to promote the Hahnemann property to a nonprofit and requested cash from town and state to maintain it open, however neither possibility labored.

Following information that Philadelphia had deserted negotiations with Freedman, calls to grab the property so as to save lives got here pouring in, together with from elected officers.

“Eminent Domain was created for conditions like #Hahnemann,” City Council member Helen Gym wrote on Twitter. “This is a public health emergency and Philly is the largest city in the nation WITHOUT a public hospital. We cannot allow unconscionable greed to get in the way of saving lives. Eminent domain this property.” Legal specialists say the prolonged technique of eminent area and the requirement to pay the proprietor honest market worth for the constructing make it an unlikely mechanism for an occasion like this.

But in public well being emergencies, native, state and federal governments do have broad authority to commandeer personal property, comparable to inns, conference facilities, college dormitories and even defunct hospitals for catastrophe response. Williams, whose analysis has targeted on preserving hospital infrastructure throughout a pandemic, mentioned that thus far within the United States, that hasn’t needed to occur ― not less than not within the conventional sense.

In Pennsylvania, the governor’s emergency declaration offers him the authority to “commandeer or utilize any private, public or quasi-public property if necessary to cope with the disaster emergency.” A well being division consultant mentioned all choices stay on the desk within the occasion that town’s hospital mattress capability is overrun.

In the interim, the mayor made a take care of Temple University to make use of its basketball area, which might have the capability to deal with 250 non-critical sufferers, for gratis to town.

This story is a part of a partnership that features WHYY, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

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