Alongside the questions asked of Dennis Kucinich by journalists, at his press conference on Monday, a handful of attendees demanded “what about St. Michael’s?” Fifteen years ago, St. Michael’s Hospital in Slavic Village also faced closure, before a community effort aided by then-Congressman Kucinich intervened. The “Miracle on Broadway” resulted in a sale to University Hospitals, which spent several million dollars renovating St. Michael’s.
Yet, three years later, in December 2003 St. Michael’s closed its doors for good.
It is often remarked that “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” and St. Michael’s does offer some lessons with relevance for Lakewood. These do not, however, include “give up, don’t fight for the hospital, it will only delay the inevitable.”
The story of St. Michael’s is, among other things, a useful reminder of how things have changed in American health care since 2003. Reporting on the hospital’s closure that autumn, Plain Dealer columnist Sam Fulwood remarked that “Keeping St. Michael open offered false hope to the indigent people of Slavic Village… In a nation where the best health care is limited to those with employer-provided insurance, poor and unemployed people have few choices. Often, they get care only when it can’t be put off any longer. That’s why hospital emergency rooms are crowded when so many hospital beds are empty.” Criticizing Kucinich’s continued efforts to the hospital alive, Fulwood opined that “Kucinich should have taken advantage of his popularity in the community to urge those attending the town hall meeting to join him and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones in their uphill fight in Congress for universal health care.” (1)
Several years later, Kucinich and others at last made significant progress in that very same uphill fight. Today the number of uninsured in America is steadily falling. The affluent still enjoy a separate standard of care, it must be acknowledged, but it is an equally blunt truth that Lakewood is not in the same position as “the indigent people of Slavic Village.”
Nor is Lakewood Hospital in anything like the desperate position of St. Michael’s in 2000. The bankruptcy of owner Primary Health Systems plunged St. Michael’s and other PHS hospitals into a sudden, genuine crisis. All parties involved were forced to make rushed decisions in the confusion that followed. University Hospitals purchased St. Michael’s at public auction, during a particularly frantic era in its ongoing competition with the Cleveland Clinic, without “business plan or blueprint for the facilities.” (2) Three years later, UH chose to cut its losses and walk away.
The circumstances surrounding Lakewood Hospital could hardly be more different from this episode. The city of Lakewood itself owns the hospital building, and has an agreement with Cleveland Clinic to maintain hospital services there through 2026; the odds of the Clinic system going bankrupt in the near future are vanishingly small. The Clinic claims that Lakewood Hospital is losing money, but this is essentially a manufactured “crisis,” quite unlike the problems St. Michael’s faced. A large part of Lakewood Hospital’s alleged operating deficits are the consequence of arbitrary, enormous fees for “administrative services,” and to the extent that Lakewood Hospital is losing money it is losing money to Cleveland Clinic. The same Cleveland Clinic that, as more and more documents demonstrate, planned Lakewood Hospital’s extinction even as it was making promises to the city about a new full-service replacement.
Under these circumstances, there is simply no cause to abandon Lakewood Hospital or do anything else in a hurry. As Huron Consulting affirmed, holding Cleveland Clinic to its obligations while conducting a patient, transparent, genuine search for a new partnership is a perfectly viable option. Meanwhile, the prospects of a legal remedy for such real damage as the hospital does sustain look ever stronger.
None of this was the case for St. Michael’s. Lakewood has more time, better resources, and a more favorable health care policy environment than that which faced Slavic Village a dozen years ago.
It’s also worth recalling that St. Michael’s was not the only threatened hospital purchased by UH, in 2000, following community action led by Dennis Kucinich and others. What’s more, of two local hospitals saved from the Primary Health Systems bankruptcy, Richmond Heights Hospital’s prospects arguably appeared at least as daunting as those of St. Michael’s. The Plain Dealer warned ominously that “making the Richmond Heights hospital profitable again is no easy assignment. The hospital has staffing problems… Some of the equipment is old… Years of financial problems have discouraged vendors from extending credit to the hospital…” (3)
Despite all of which, “UH Richmond Medical Center, a Campus of UH Regional Hospitals became a full-service, community-based, 125-bed acute care teaching hospital, offering residents of Lake and eastern Cuyahoga Counties more than 30 specialties.” As it has remained since.
Lakewood absolutely can save our hospital, and keep a valuable community asset in sound shape for a long time to come.
n.b. Much news coverage of the fight for St. Michael’s predates the archive currently maintained online by cleveland.com, but the following stories are accessible to Cleveland Public Library members via their Plain Dealer archive.
- Fulwood, Sam, “Health care ills go beyond hospital,” The Plain Dealer 20 Sept. 2003.
- McEnery, Regina, “Bankruptcy Judge OKs Sale of Hospitals to UH, Clnic,” The Plain Dealer, 10 May 2000.
- McEnery, Regina, “Problems Galore Await Effort to Revive Richmond Hts. Hospital,” The Plain Dealer, 28 May 2000.