By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — A bill to immunize city officials from remaining in the dark over a pending hospital closures progressed through a Philadelphia City Council committee on Wednesday, setting up a potential final vote in the coming weeks.
Under the bill, the city would require hospital owners to provide written notice to Philadelphia officials at least 180 days before they intend to close all or most of their departments and set up a plan to transfer patients. The council committee voted to amend the bill and gave it a favorable recommendation.
The legislation stemmed from the unexpected bankruptcy and closure of Hahnemann Hospital, owned by a for-profit company headed by investment banker Joel Freedman.
At-large City Councilwoman Helen Gym, a Democrat and main sponsor of the bill, said the intention of the bill was to ensure the city “will never again be left out of the critical decisions that impact the lives of our neediest residents.”
The Kenney administration endorsed the legislation.
City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley testified that hospital closures were potentially risky for patients, and hospital owners have an obligation to ensure a coordinated transition of care for patients.
Hahnemann’s parent company, Academic Health System, failed its patients, he said.
The hospital owners made no plans to transfer the care of patients with ongoing medical conditions to other facilities, and had no plan to secure or store its medical records or make them available to physicians receiving former Hahnemann patients, Farley said.
“This dangerous situation occurred despite the fact that, in retrospect, Hahnemann’s owners must have known for months before their announcement that they intended to close the hospital,” Farley said.
Hahnemann’s owners said the hospital, which opened in 1848, was losing money. The hospital had a Level 1 trauma center with nearly 500 beds in its Center City building and accepted upwards of 50,000 emergency room visits a year, and served many low-income patients and those on public insurance.
The sudden closure of Hahnemann was an embarrassment and left employees scrambling with dwindling resources to care for patients, said Regina Franklin, a member of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees 1199C, which represented hundreds of workers at the healthcare facility.
“Not only was it embarrassing to us not to have cups to have water in them — it was so unethical,” Franklin said. “They [Hahnemann’s owners] did not care. They locked floors. They had chains on the doors. How could this even happen at a major hospital in the heart of Philadelphia?”
Gym could introduce the bill to the full City Council as soon as Thursday. The final session of City Council is Dec. 12, after which any unpassed legislation is scrapped to make way for a new cohort of council members who takeover in January.
The legislation has the support of 11 council members and the Kenney administration, a strong indication that the bill will pass before the end of the year.
The proposal would expand and give teeth to 1960s-era city regulation, which only requires advance notice about the anticipated closures of medical facilities with emergency rooms.
The bill would apply to hospital owners who intend to close all or most of its units or departments, or a unit or department the city determines that might “significantly impact the health and welfare of an affected community,” including an emergency unit and labor and delivery unit.
Under the bill, hospital owners would require hospital owners to create a comprehensive “closure plan” and submit it to the city least 120 days before they intend to shut down a facility.
The legislation would require a closure plan to include reasons for the closure, how patients would be transferred and continue to receive car, and written agreements with other healthcare providers to receive those patients.
Hospital owners also would be required to hold a public meeting about the closure in the affected community.
The legislation would grant city officials the power to take hospital owners who fail to comply to court in an attempt to halt a closure and appoint a temporary manager to create and carry out a closure plan.
Councilwoman Cindy Bass, a Democrat who heads the committee, said large swaths of the city were disconnected from accessing high quality healthcare, an issue made worse by the city’s high poverty rate.
“It’s really just shameful in terms of the way healthcare in Philadelphia is playing out,” she said. “We call us a city of eds and meds, and yet we have so many who are so far disconnected from the healthcare system that we have her in the city of Philadelphia.”
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.