The scene is hard to forget: the long lines of sick people waiting to be treated at city-run Elmhurst Hospital during the peak of the coronavirus crisis.

“People spent days in the Elmhurst waiting room and they were terrified,” said Amanda Dunker, a senior policy associate with Community Service Society. “People shouldn’t have to go through that."

In a recent report, she points out that Elmhurst Hospital is the only medical safety net left in western Queens after four other hospitals shut down over the last 20 years.

St. Joseph’s Hospital closed in 2004 amid financial difficulties. Today, the building serves as a substance abuse recovery center. Parkway Hospital in Forest Hills shuttered in 2008. St. John’s Hospital in Elmhurst and Mary Immaculate in Jamaica closed the following year. St. John’s is now a mixed-use residential development and Mary Immaculate is being converted into apartments.

State Sen. Toby Stavisky says the hospitals suffered because they largely served economically struggling patients.

“The real problem is that they weren’t being reimbursed, they had a lot of Medicaid-eligible patients, and there was slow reimbursement, and some people had no insurance at all and they were treated,” said Stavisky.

The closures cost the borough more than 600 hospital beds, leaving it with 1.7 beds for every 1,000 residents, the worst ratio in the city. In Manhattan, there are 5.8 beds for every 1,000 residents, according to state data.

“The closure of the beds absolutely had an impact on what we saw at Elmhurst because there is no place to go, so where do you go? You have to go to Elmhurst hospital,” said Councilman Daniel Dromm.

Both Stavisky and Dromm’s districts include Elmhurst Hospital and the shuttered St. John’s. They say the solution will take money. Stavisky supports a millionaire’s tax to raise money for health care. Dromm wants more federal funding for primary care providers and federally qualified health centers.

And Dunker says more funding from state sources, like the Indigent Care Pool, could be redirected to safety-net hospitals.

“We couldn’t have been completely prepared for COVID, it’s just too big a problem,” Dunker explained. “But a lot of the suffering and trauma that a lot of the people just survived because of COVID could have been avoidable if we had had more rational planning for where those health care resources went.”


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