‘This is scary’: Patients worry about hospital closures amid Steward Health Care crisis

BOSTON — Mary Regan lives five blocks away from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital -- and she’d like to keep that proximity to the bitter end.

“I was born at St. Elizabeth’s,” she said. “I had my daughter there. So you know I thought I would probably die there, eventually.”

But that final visit to St. Elizabeth’s is no longer a guarantee. Regan and the thousands who rely on the Brighton Hospital for health care are suddenly facing the possibility it could go out of business.

Steward Health Care, operator of St. E’s and eight other facilities in Massachusetts, is financially struggling -- that much the company will acknowledge. It would not confirm published reports indicating Steward is massively in the hole for back rent at St. Elizabeth’s and Carney Hospital in Dorchester -- with up to $50 million owed.

“We’ve heard the rumors for a long time,” she said. “And this is scary. Because I have a wonderful primary care physician that I love and I have a cardiac doctor.”

Steward is no stranger to hospital closures in Massachusetts. About four years ago, Steward’s Norwood Hospital sustained irreparable damage in a massive flash flood. It was forced to close; a new hospital is going up in its place. Late last year, Steward announced the closure of New England Sinai Hospital in Stoughton. That facility will shutter for good in April.

The possibility of another Steward closure caught the attention of both state and federal lawmakers.

“When healthcare facilities or services close, we are always concerned about any potential disruption to patients, healthcare workers, families, and communities,” said a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. “DPH will continue to closely monitor and work with Steward to protect patients, preserve jobs and maintain quality.”

The Massachusetts congressional delegation announced Tuesday their demand for a briefing from Steward.

There’s a good reason for this full-court press, suggested Barbara Spivak, MD, a practicing physician in Watertown and president of the Massachusetts Medical Society.

“In this environment, any hospital that closed would create a crisis for that community,” Spivak said. “No hospital in the state has enough of a resource in beds, staff, emergency room capacity, etcetera to cope with a hospital closing -- particularly the bigger hospitals.”

Spivak said hospitals are backed up, in part, because they’re using beds to house patients who could medically go elsewhere -- but are in a holding pattern waiting for space to open up in, for example, in mental health or rehab facilities.

As for Mary Regan, she feels she’s got no choice but to start planning for another healthcare option. But it’s not easy.

“People said Brigham’s a great place,” she said. “But I called Brigham once for something and had like a 10-month wait before they’d even see me.”

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