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Long Beach Medical Center eyes March reopening

Damage to Long Beach Medical Center is still

Damage to Long Beach Medical Center is still evident on Dec. 6, 2012. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Long Beach Medical Center, the only hospital for the 38,000 residents of the barrier island, needs more than $56 million to fix damage from superstorm Sandy, and it won't reopen until mid-March.

Hospital chief executive Douglas Melzer estimated that more than three months of work will be needed before the 162-bed medical center -- which has 13,000 visits annually to its emergency department and treats 102,000 outpatients each year -- can again start treating patients. The hospital's 200-bed nursing home and its family outpatient clinic will reopen around the new year.

Sandy's powerful surge flooded the hospital's basement, destroying the Family Care Center, pharmacy, heating plant, electrical system, kitchen, laundry, purchasing department and maintenance area.

State Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach) said that reopening the medical center can't happen soon enough, given how long it can take for ambulances to reach other hospitals off the barrier island. Melzer said it is typically taking 90 minutes for ambulances to deliver patients to other medical facilities and return to Long Beach.

"I know how important this hospital is," Weisenberg said. "I think it's government's job to provide resources."

A mobile unit, provided by an upstate health center, is providing basic health services in the parking lot across from the hospital on East Bay Drive.

Melzer said he hoped much of the money needed to repair the 90-year-old hospital and nursing home, evacuated before the storm, will come from insurance, and state and federal aid. But Melzer said he anticipates that the medical center -- in the red before the storm and unable to take in any revenue since then -- will still have a $14.85-million shortfall.

"We don't have the revenue coming in, and we are trying to restore operations as quickly as possible," he said. "We would expect the feds and the state would support this vital working institution."


Employees laid off

In the meantime, about 700 of the hospital's 1,200 employees remain laid off -- the hospital was the largest non-governmental employer in Long Beach, and its only medical center. And while some of its 200 doctors are reopening their practices, others have been forced to take jobs elsewhere.

"I have a feeling many of these doctors won't come back," said the hospital's medical director, Dr. Harish Sood.

There are some signs of a return to normalcy. The nursing home, less damaged than the hospital, is slated to reopen around the new year. So is the Family Care Center, the hospital's clinic for the uninsured and underinsured, but at a different site, 761 Franklin Blvd., a block from the hospital. The medical center is also trying to find a place to reopen its outpatient mental health and alcohol programs before March.

Not all services will be restored by the projected March 15 opening, and the hospital plans to outsource food and laundry services and relocate the pharmacy in the interim, Melzer said.

The hospital said repairs will cost about $23 million, new equipment will cost up to $8.9 million, and it will take another $10 million to help make the hospital disaster-resistant in the future. Ongoing fixed costs, such as leases, are another $14.25 million, Melzer said.

He said the state advanced the hospital $1.2 million soon after the storm to help meet operating costs, but it needs more, and he has sought help from state officials and legislators, and is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Melzer has met with FEMA officials to complete a work plan, a first step in getting money from the agency, which typically reimburses damaged institutions 75 cents on the dollar. The state then generally pays 12.5 percent, and the institution pays the remaining 12.5 percent. Melzer said he is hopeful the hospital will pay less.


Calculating FEMA aidFEMA spokesman John Mills said that "given the large amount of damage in New York State, it is possible that the federal government will pay a larger share, but that is not a guarantee, and local government and nonprofits should budget for a 75 percent reimbursement."

Some hospital employees are working at other hospitals, including Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Center in Patchogue and Plainview Hospital. Others are working per diem at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside and at other North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System facilities.

Others aren't so lucky.

Dolores Mascolo, 49, has lived in Long Beach since she was 6 years old and has worked at the medical center for 30 years. An office supervisor in the outpatient counseling center, she lost her job, her house and all her possessions in the storm. She, her husband and two children are staying in one room in her brother's house in Island Park while their house is rebuilt. Her husband, a dispatcher for a cable company, is working, and she is collecting disaster unemployment benefits -- about half her usual pay -- for which she is grateful.

She's hopeful she'll have her job back once the mental health center reopens. "It's like my home away from home," she said. "It's like being displaced from another family."

Restoring that sense of family is important to patients, too.

Carol Sprung, 57, relies on a walker and wheelchair to get around and was stuck for weeks in her third-floor apartment after Sandy. Nurses in the medical center's home agency -- themselves without homes -- trudged through the mud and debris to give her physical therapy.

"It was rays of sunshine who walked up that staircase with their flashlights. God bless them," she said. "They are friends. It was the people who made the hospital, not the facility."

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