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A Hospital on Life Support


Located on the border of the Manhattan neighborhoods of Chelsea and Greenwich Village, St. Vincent's Medical Center has been at the forefront of care in treating New York's tragedies, epidemics, and crises since it opened in 1849. But now, as the city reels from recession, the legendary hospital is on the verge of closing its doors permanently, leaving thousands of people living with AIDS without their primary care facility.

"St. Vincent's shutting down leaves a huge hole in New York City," said Ken Fornataro, the director of the AIDS Treatment Data Network. "This is one of the major places in the city where anyone can get AIDS care."

In addition to treating Titanic survivors and those injured in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, St. Vincent's was the epicenter of care for New York's HIV-positive gay men during the early '80s. The Sisters of Charity, the Catholic nuns who established St. Vincent's, insisted their teaching hospital take anyone who needed care, regardless of financial circumstances.

But as gentrification changed New York in the 1990s, local residents skipped over the aging St. Vincent's in favor of better funded hospitals like Memorial Sloan Kettering or Lennox Hill Hospital; at a landmarks preservation hearing in 2008, actress Susan Sarandon said she wouldn't even bring her children there. St. Vincent's has been in such dire financial straits lately that it was forced to take several multi-million dollar loans from the state. A proposed deal in February to have a hospital network take over St. Vincent's failed, resulting in the facility preparing to close its inpatient and emergency room care, and possibly shut down completely.

Fornataro, the director of Housing Works's AIDS Treatment Data Network, a group that connects HIV-positive people with treatment and support, says his organization is not equipped to handle the thousands of St. Vincent's patients who will most likely turn to Housing Works if the hospital closes.

St. Vincent's was one of the first hospitals in the nation to open its doors, without hostility, to people with HIV, says Marjorie Hill, executive director of Gay Men's Health Crisis. She called the potential closing of the hospital a "public health and social justice travesty," especially because this will force thousands of regular patients to find new modes of health care. Hill cites research showing that people changing providers tend to interrupt their health care regimen. "A lot of the time, people don't go to their new doctor until they are sick," she says. "So if someone with HIV waits, they might show up to their doctor with full-blown AIDS."

The clock on the hospital is now ticking down. The loan from the state will go to pay employees, and, as of press time, the hospital's last option is to be purchased by Continuum Health Partners, the network of hospitals that proposed a takeover in February.

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