The financially beleaguered Long Beach Medical Center, closed by superstorm Sandy, may not reopen as a full-service, acute care hospital, according to hospital and state officials.
Instead, it has entered into talks with South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside about a possible merger. The talks have come at the urging of the state Health Department, which said it will not approve renewed operations unless the hospital has a viable financial plan.
Meanwhile, some contractors have filed liens against the medical center while it awaits federal funding to pay for about $20 million in temporary repairs.
Long Beach is the only hospital shuttered by Sandy not to reopen. Hospital officials, who had hoped to reopen the emergency department and some medical-surgical floors as early as February, said most of the temporary repairs have been made. But the state Health Department and county fire marshal must sign off before it can reopen. The state must also approve federal dollars for permanent repairs, which architects have estimated would cost about $100 million.
"They don't want to reopen it as a full hospital," said hospital spokeswoman Sharon Player, referring to the health department. "They want us to merge with another hospital or health care system, not operate as an acute care hospital."
State Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah was blunt in his assessment of the hospital's past performance: "Doug Melzer and the leadership of Long Beach Medical Center have failed to meet their obligations to address the dire financial and operational issues that for too long have plagued this hospital," Shah said, referring to the hospital's chief executive.
Distressed before the storm
The 162-bed hospital, which has lost money every year since 2007, including $2.5 million in 2011, was among the most financially distressed hospitals in the state before the storm, the health department said. Before Sandy, 60 percent of patients in the hospital's service area chose other hospitals and it scored low on patient satisfaction, the state said.
"The data does not support in any way continuing the current Long Beach Medical Center unsustainable model," Shah said.
Instead of a full-service hospital, he said "a collaborative, coordinated network of health care services could include a freestanding emergency department, ambulatory surgery facility, urgent care, and primary care."
In a letter published Thursday in Newsday, the chairman and vice chairman of the hospital's board of directors, Bernard Kennedy and James Portnof, said they were not opposed to a merger with another hospital. But they said that "given the size and geographic isolation of the community, an acute care hospital with emergency services is both clinically appropriate and financially viable" and they called on residents to "voice your concerns."
Exactly what services the hospital would offer is not clear. "We have been in constant communication with DOH trying to develop a plan," Player said. "We understand the medical center may be different than what it was."
What kind of alliance Long Beach might forge with South Nassau is also not clear.
Damien Becker, a spokesman for the 435-bed Oceanside hospital, where many Long Beach residents have been taken for emergency care since the Oct. 29 storm, said, "We're working together to assess the health care needs of the Long Beach community to develop a delivery model that could possibly meet those needs."
Player said the hospital is not in discussions with any other hospital.
Repair funds slow to come
Meanwhile, Long Beach Medical Center's chief financial officer, Barry Stern, said the hospital has received only $950,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and another $2 million from insurance to pay for $20 million in repairs.
"It's fair to say we're frustrated by payments from FEMA," he said. "The process is not quick enough. All these contractors have worked in good faith under the FEMA program."
An additional $600,000 in federal money has been approved for disbursement, although that money has been tied up because of a disagreement on the scope of damages to the hospital's alcohol and drug treatment facility, Stern said.
FEMA said another $6 million in disbursements still must be reviewed by the hospital, FEMA and other agencies -- which could take six weeks before being dispensed by the state.
That has left contractors, who have been working for months without pay, waiting for their money.
Stephen Cadieux, president of Roland's Electric Inc. in Deer Park, said he was owed about $1.4 million for rewiring the hospital's electrical system.
"We had 10 to 12 guys there for months. I finally had to pull them off because we couldn't afford it," he said. "It baffles me. I took the money out of my pocket on the promise that we were going to be paid."
Stern said some major contractors have filed "mechanic's liens" -- a hold against property filed by an unpaid contractor -- against the hospital. Cadieux said he hasn't filed a lien but he might "have no choice if we don't get some payment information."
In response to questions about whether there was something special about the hospital's situation that was slowing the process, FEMA said:
"The review time frame can be affected by the level of organization and clarity contained in an applicant's documentation and the subsequent time required by FEMA to sort through and validate those materials. This has been a factor with the LBMC claims. Additionally, any project over $1.1 million must be reviewed by the OLA [the federal Office of Legislative Affairs] and the OMB [the federal Office of Management and Budget.]"
But Stern said the hospital had provided adequate documentation.
"We hired a professional consulting firm and they have been working since March 1 to provide, in excruciating detail, in spreadsheets and documentation, all the support they could," he said.