SQUISH steps in to fill SE Queens’s hospital gap

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By Ivan Pereira
Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ever since Mary Immaculate Hospital closed earlier this year, a group of southeast Queens civics has been working hard to make sure residents get their health needs met.

Now the members of Southeast Queens in Support of Health Services are making a push to get additional funding for the area’s remaining health centers. The state Health Department is currently reviewing applications from Queens health organizations for its Heal NY program that will disperse nearly $30 million in aid to borough centers in light of the loss of Mary Immaculate and St. John’s hospitals.

SQUISH member Nisha Agarwal, the director of the health justice program for one of the coalition’s group’s, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, said southeast Queens should be the priority because a fact sheet, or “white paper,” issued with the grant announcement showed the void left by Mary Immaculate’s closing is severe.

“We’re trying to exert any influence we have. As soon as the white paper came out, we evaluated it and sent out information,” she said.

In order to be eligible for the grant, the applicant must be a state-certified hospital, primary care center or diagnostic and treatment center within the borough, the Health Department said. Each group is eligible for up to $5 million and the application deadline ended last week, according to the department.

Agarwal said several medical centers, including Jamaica Hospital, have been overloaded with patients and its doctors and other professionals are overworked.

She said SQUISH has been trying to get more information on who applied for the grant, but the state was still going through the applicants.

“It’s good news because there is funding … but the grant is not enough and we don’t know where it’s going,” she said.

Agarwal said the group has been in contact with state leaders, including state Sen. Shirley Huntley (D-Jamaica) and state Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows), and they have been forwarding southeast Queens’ health care concerns to the state Legislature.

SQUISH was created in 2006 when Mary Immaculate was first facing the threat of bankruptcy. The coalition included a dozen civics and advocacy groups and helped to give the hospital more years of operation, according to Agarwal.

“At that time, the community forum provided testimony to different health committees and the bankruptcy court to give it another lease on life,” she said.

Mary Immaculate was saved when it was bought by Caritas Health Care in 2006, but Caritas eventually went into bankruptcy earlier this year and the hospital was shut down for good.

The organization has become more active since the hospital closings in March and has plans to help residents in the future. SQUISH is in the process of holding a health care forum where southeast Queens residents will talk to DOH administrators and state leaders.

“Lancman said that the community needs to have a more active presence in Albany,” Agarwal said. “This way we can have our residents talk to the officials directly about their health needs.”

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