HARLEM — The closure of the pediatric unit at St. Luke's Hospital is having a "terrible impact" on Harlem's children, sparking fear among critics that a proposed merger with Mt. Sinai Hospital could mean more cuts are on the way, local leaders said.
St. Luke's Hospital, located at Amsterdam Avenue and West 114th Street, closed their pediatric in-patient unit just after Hurricane Sandy, saying they needed the space to accommodate patients from hospitals forced to evacuate because of the storm.
But the unit never reopened, and St. Luke's now sends children who need to be admitted for care to St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center at West 59th Street.
Now with plans in the works for Continuum Health Partners, which owns both St. Luke's Hospitals, to merge with Mt. Sinai Hospital, there is a concern that more services will be slashed to save money.
"Patients, community leaders, and caregivers deserve a voice and a say in this merger to preserve access to care for the Harlem community," said Gwen Lancaster, a registered nurse at St. Luke's and an elected leader of the New York State Nurses Association.
Community Board 9 is set to vote Thursday on a resolution calling for the hospitals to provide details about the merger and to issue a plan detailing how service levels will be maintained. The board also wants the pediatric unit reopened.
Mt. Sinai and Continuum Health Partners have signed a memorandum of understanding to explore a merger. The move came after NYU Langone Medical Center backed out of merger talks with Continuum last summer once they found out Mt. Sinai was also pursuing a partnership with the hospital system.
The CB 9 resolution says that because children's asthma rates are twice in Harlem what they are in the rest of Manhattan, the need for an in-patient unit remains strong.
Instead, the lack of a pediatric unit is forcing young patients and their families to travel Downtown if they must be admitted to the hospital, critics of the change argue.
"We don't want our kids shuttled Downtown when we believe there is a demand here," said the Rev. Georgiette Morgan-Thomas, chairwoman of Community Board 9. "We want them to maintain pediatric beds at St. Luke's. If that means reducing the number of beds we can understand that."
The board also says there are long waits for a bed in the emergency room and that St. Luke's is limiting its capacity by eliminating beds. Pediatric patients are also being admitted to adult wards and being treated by non-pediatricians, the board charges.
Lancaster said the closure of the pediatric unit is having a "terrible impact."
"Harlem kids now have to leave our neighborhood when they need to be admitted to the hospital. They are stabilized in the ER and then moved to another hospital. That adds unnecessary stress to the child and their family when the focus should be on getting them better as soon as possible," Lancaster said.
Hospital officials disagree. There were 28 pediatric beds at St. Luke's but only 5 to 7 admissions per week, they said.
The move allows the hospital to save money by combining with the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at its Downtown facility and to provide an "optimal model of care."
"We are happy to report that the consolidation was done successfully and that the pediatric inpatient unit at Roosevelt is in full operation and doing extremely well," said Jim Mandler, vice president for public affairs at Continuum Health Partners.
St. Luke’s Hospital continues to operate outpatient and emergency pediatric services.
But children and parents are the ones feeling the impact, critics say.
Morgan-Thomas said she recently spoke with a West Harlem parent who took her child to St. Luke's emergency room for treatment. After being in the hospital for eight hours, the parent said she had to then accompany her child Downtown, causing a huge inconvenience.
"We need to look at some alternative options here. To not have a pediatric unit in a neighborhood with a large number of families just doesn't make sense," Morgan-Thomas said.
In addition, Morgan-Thomas said the board never received requested utilization studies for the pediatric unit to verify usage figures.
Mandler, however, said the hospital has shared its plans with the board.
“After reviewing our plans in detail with the Community Board, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt moved forward several months ago with a consolidation of in-patient pediatric services to Roosevelt Hospital," he said.
Morgan-Thomas said the resolution is the first step to get more information about the proposed merger and to make sure additional services are not cut.
"We don't want what happened to St. Vincent's and North General to happen here," Morgan-Thomas said of the recently closed hospitals. "If you keep closing down units it looks like you don't want to have a hospital here."