19, No. 7
Apr. 6 - 19 , 2006
North Central Hospital Fears Aired at
Director Feels Future ‘Absolutely’ Secure
By HEATHER HADDON
Protecting North Central Bronx Hospital was a prevalent
concern among local elected officials and advocates testifying at a Bronx
hearing on possible reductions in state medical facilities last week. The
Norwood institution does not appear to be under an immediate threat, but
some worry that prior downsizing makes it vulnerable to closure.
“The possibility of closing NCB would amount to an attack on the people of
the northwest Bronx,” said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, in testimony read
by a staffer.
The three-hour session was the Bronx’ chance to respond to a state
commission charged with examining New York’s hospitals and nursing homes.
State lawmakers are hoping to reduce costs by whittling down the system’s
capacity. The governor is also intent on curbing the growing cost of
Medicaid — the public insurance system that is the lifeline for many
hospitals — by keeping reimbursement rates flat.
As it is, city public hospitals are struggling financially. The Health and
Hospitals Corporation (HHC), which oversees the city’s public facilities, is
estimated to be running a $510 million budget deficit, according to an
analysis the city’s Independent Budget Office released last month.
“If current trends continue and the additional state and federal resources
are not available, HHC will soon be unable to cover its expenses,” stated
The governor and state legislature established the task force (officially
called the Commission on Health Care Facilities in the 21st Century) last
year to study how the hospital system can be downsized. Possibilities
include “consolidation, closure, conversion, and restructuring of
institutions,” as their Web site states.
North Central Bronx (NCB) faced some of those options in 1999, when the city
reportedly sought to close the hospital. NCB never shuttered its doors, but
it did go through an extensive downsizing. Its inpatient pediatrics and
rehabilitation units were closed, beds were shed, and staffing levels were
cut roughly in half.
Today, NCB is the Bronx’ third smallest hospital. It employs 1,200 staff,
contains 190 beds and made 7,237 discharges in 2004, according to state
figures. In comparison, Montefiore Medical Center saw almost 36,000 patients
and maintained 706 beds in just the division that neighbors NCB.
But NCB is still a valuable local resource. The facility’s sexual assault
response team provides services throughout the Bronx, and other city
hospitals have replicated its award-winning work. NCB offers comprehensive
psychiatry and addiction programs, special adolescent pregnancy services and
a trauma unit. And as a public hospital, it cannot turn away the poor or
“We need a public hospital for our community,” said Elizabeth Thompson, an
NCB employee for the past 23 years and a Kingsbridge Heights resident.
“[Officials] kept saying they weren’t going to close it, but now we’re faced
with it again.”
Arthur Wagner, NCB’s executive director, said he felt “absolutely” secure
about the hospital’s fate. “I am very comfortable with the state we are in,”
he said. Wagner thinks the state should see the hospital’s prior downsizing
as a model of resource restructuring.
But advocates believe prior efforts to shut NCB make it more vulnerable.
“The same politics that have been there for years is the same politics that
will be there now,” said Judy Wessler of the Commission on the Public’s
Health System, a city advocacy group.
Beyond NCB, speakers repeatedly cited the borough’s rapidly growing
population and extensive healthcare needs as reasons not to close
facilities. The Bronx has one of the city’s highest rates of diabetes, HIV
infection and obesity. “The Bronx’ high incidences of disease makes its
service needs higher per capita than any other in the city,” said state
Senator Jeffrey Klein, in testimony read by a staffer.
Speakers also repeatedly criticized downsizing for its ramifications on
Bronx employment. A third of Bronx residents currently work in the health
Congressman José Serrano, state Senator Efrain Gonzalez and Bronx Borough
President Adolfo Carrión also submitted testimony, but Council Member Oliver
Koppell was the only elected official who spoke in person. Plenty of union
representatives, but few residents, were in attendance.
Wessler thought the low numbers were due to a hearing on the Yankee Stadium
development that day, and poor publicity. “The commission hasn’t made a
serious effort to get people there,” she said.
The City Council has also formed a task force to study the possible
closures. They held their first public meeting at Fordham University on
April 3, and will solicit opinion throughout the boroughs. They will issue a
report in September.
All five boroughs have now given testimony to the state commission, which
will make final recommendations in December. Wessler thinks the hearings
sent a strong message against closures, but she’s worried that it won’t
reach the final decision makers. “How much of it will make it up there is
unclear,” she said.
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