One of the last remaining hospitals serving Lower Manhattan may well close next year, despite opposition from local officials and health activists who say the lessons of the pandemic are going unheeded.
Mount Sinai Health System asked state officials last week to approve a plan to close Mount Sinai Beth Israel, a major provider of medical care for Lower East Side residents that was founded in 1889. The hospital system said its Beth Israel facility was losing money at too fast a pace and that it intended to shut it down in July 2024.
The closure would mean longer ambulance rides and wait times for some downtown residents having strokes and heart attacks, nurses who work at the hospital said. And it will most likely to lead to overcrowding and longer wait times in emergency rooms at hospitals farther uptown.
“People will likely die as a result,” said Sharlene Waylon, a nurse who has worked at the hospital for 41 years.
If it goes through, the hospital’s disappearance would leave the residents of Lower Manhattan with few major medical institutions. The largest hospital that would remain to serve that area would be NewYork-Presbyterian/Lower Manhattan hospital, a small institution that has fewer than 200 beds. Beth Israel, by contrast, officially has some 696 beds, although far fewer are staffed and some days only a quarter of them are filled with patients.
Most of the large hospitals serving neighborhoods that include Greenwich Village, the Lower East Side, Little Italy and Chinatown have been shuttered. In the last 20 years alone, Cabrini Hospital in the Gramercy Park neighborhood and St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village have both closed.
“Lower Manhattan already has too few hospital beds, and the closure of Beth Israel will make that situation even worse,” said Lois Uttley, a longtime health care researcher and consultant who has tracked hospital consolidation and closures.
Just three years ago some hospitals were overwhelmed by a surge of patients during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. That was especially the case in Queens, where years of hospital closures left the few remaining hospitals, including Elmhurst, overwhelmed.
During the first deadly phase of the pandemic, Beth Israel cared for more than 1,700 Covid patients — 165 of whom died, according to state statistics.
“Hopefully New York State has learned its lessons from the pandemic when there was not enough hospital capacity,” Ms. Uttley said.
State hospital regulators must approve Mount Sinai’s request. In that sense, its application to close Beth Israel represents something of a test: Has the pandemic changed the state’s approach to hospital closures, which it traditionally has been willing to approve, and has even encouraged?
Far more surgeries and medical care occur on an outpatient basis or entirely outside of hospitals than in the past, which has been the logic behind some decisions to close hospitals. But the reduction in hospital beds has exacerbated crowding in emergency rooms at hospitals across the city.
Mount Sinai has said that with patient occupancy so low, its Beth Israel campus is set to lose $150 million a year. “These continued and growing losses pose a real existential threat to the viability and future of the entire Mount Sinai Health system,” the president of the Beth Israel campus, Elizabeth Sellman, wrote in a letter to the state Health Department on Oct. 25.
The letter noted that Mount Sinai had invested in new facilities downtown, including a large behavioral health center on Rivington Street that opened this year.
On Thursday afternoon, Rose Kacic, who was born at Beth Israel 30 years ago, was visiting the hospital to see her 59-year-old mother, who had a range of health issues.
“It’s upsetting to know they’re closing down,” she said. “It’s a very essential part of the community,” she added. Her three brothers were also born at Beth Israel, and she said it had been her family’s hospital ever since her mother moved to New York from Puerto Rico.
“Now I got to worry about where to go if something major happens,” she said, noting that Bellevue, the next closest hospital, was 10 blocks away.
The local assemblyman, Harvey Epstein, expressed concern that Mount Sinai’s decision to close Beth Israel was motivated by what the hospital’s property could fetch if it was sold to developers.
“Is this just a real estate grab for them?” Mr. Epstein wondered in a phone interview this week.
The history of Beth Israel is linked to the influx of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe who settled in the Lower East Side in the late 19th century. In 1889, a group of these newcomers decided to form a dispensary and later a hospital. Not only did the Lower East Side, emerging as one of the most densely packed places on earth, need medical institutions of its own, but the newcomers also sought kosher food and culturally appropriate treatment.
Mount Sinai Hospital, farther uptown, was originally founded to care for indigent Jews and was staffed by many Jewish doctors, but it was regarded as unwelcoming to the unassimilated Jews from Russia.
Mount Sinai’s plans to close Beth Israel did not come out of nowhere. Mount Sinai and Beth Israel have been part of the same system for a decade, ever since Mount Sinai, a leading hospital at the edge of the Upper East Side and Harlem, merged with Continuum Health Partners, which ran Beth Israel and two St. Luke’s-Roosevelt campuses.
In 2016, Mount Sinai proposed closing Beth Israel and replacing it with a much smaller hospital of just 70 beds. But that plan was shelved amid the pandemic.
Liset Cruz contributed reporting.