HARLEM — St. Luke's Hospital's decision to keep its pediatric inpatient unit shuttered permanently in the wake of a temporary closure for Hurricane Sandy is angering critics who say the move forces parents to travel farther to see their sick children.
St. Luke's initially closed the pediatric unit to increase its adult bed capacity to accommodate patients who were evacuated from downtown hospitals that were forced to close because of Sandy, according to the hospital.
However, the pediatric unit never reopened after the downtown hospitals returned to normal operation and the administration has announced plans to combine the pediatric inpatient units at St. Luke's at 114th Street and Amsterdam Avenue and St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center on 59th Street. Young patients who need to stay in the hospital overnight are being sent elsewhere.
While the pediatric emergency room remains open at St. Luke's at 114th Street, any children who need to be admitted for treatment are being sent to St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center on 59th Street, Mt. Sinai or Columbia Presbyterian, officials said.
Jim Mandler, vice-president for public affairs at Continuum Health Partners, which owns both St. Luke's Hospitals, said the hospital is still seeing a higher number of adult patients than pre-Sandy due to diminished capacity at other hospitals and that's the reason the inpatient pediatrics unit is unlikely to reopen before the proposed merger.
In a letter to Upper Manhattan leaders, Frank J. Cracolici, president of Continuum Health Partners, said the move was needed to maintain a high quality of care for kids.
"Presently, we operate two small, inpatient pediatric units at both St. Luke’s Hospital and
Roosevelt Hospital. This is not an optimal model of care. As with all clinical services, quality
and excellence can only be sustained where there is significant patient volume," he wrote.
"By combining the inpatient units to one location, we can achieve better outcomes and sustain a much higher level of quality of care. This, in turn, will result in a much better hospital experience for our pediatric patients and families," he continued.
The pediatric unit at St. Luke's has 28 beds but has only between 5 to 7 admissions per week. By combining the pediatric units at St. Luke's Roosevelt, it will allow the hospital to take advantage of the existing Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at the downtown hospital, he said.
"It also is the more centrally located hospital facility to accommodate the large swath of communities throughout the west side of Manhattan who utilize our hospitals for
inpatient pediatric care," Cracolici wrote.
Critics, including elected officials and hospital nurses, who said they only learned of the permanent plans last week, said they feel the hospital's decision was made without public discussion, and may have been an attempt to shutter a longstanding unit that served mostly low-income kids. Given the health problems of kids in Upper Manhattan such as asthma and the current powerful flu season, closing the inpatient unit is a bad idea, they say.
“We have kids who have been cared for since they were infants by the same nurses at St. Luke’s,” said Adrian DeMartini, a pediatric Nurse at St. Luke’s. “We can’t let healthcare be cut for kids in our community.”
The Rev. Georgiette Morgan-Thomas, chair of Community Board 9, said she is concerned that the hospital made the decision without consulting the community.
"For them to wait until the situation with Hurricane Sandy to shut down the unit concerns me," she said. "Once those beds are gone they are gone. Moving them without giving us an opportunity to discuss this would mean war and we don't want to be at war."
Mandler says an application was filed with the state and local elected officials were notified.
Morgan-Thomas says she wasn't one of them. Now, she wants a utilization study done to determine how much the hospital is being used and if there are ways to increase that usage. She is also concerned about potential staff reductions.
With the closure of North General Hospital, lower-income communities seem to face more reductions in services, said Morgan-Thomas. Harlem and Upper Manhattan parents might have difficulty traveling downtown every day to visit a hospitalized child," she added.
"I want them to consider other options," said Morgan-Thomas.
Cracolici promised the hospital would provide transportation to St. Luke's Roosevelt for parents of all hospitalized children and that he did not anticipate "major staff reductions."
Mandler went further and said no staff would lose their job in the shuffle since they would all be reassigned.
Morgan-Thomas has asked the hospital to come address the community board later this month.
Nurses have called on the hospital to reopen the unit.
“Where are children supposed to go uptown?” asked registered nurse Karen Baptiste. “How far are mothers and fathers going to have to travel when their child needs care?”