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Saturday, April 4, 2009

Erie PA Shriners (Petition link)

Erie Shriners Hospital for Children might close
Shriners board mulls plans

BY DAVID BRUCE [more details]

Published: April 02. 2009 12:01AM

Emily Mellish is a regular at the Erie Shriners Hospital for Children.

Emily, 3, was born with spina bifida and scoliosis. The Harborcreek Township girl visits the hospital, 1645 W. Eighth St., every month or two for tests and to have her leg braces adjusted.

"Every person we see when we visit has a willingness to help children. It's amazing, and you don't see that at other hospitals," said Emily's mother, Joy Mellish. "To have a place like this in our own backyard is so wonderful."

(CHRIS SIGMUND / Erie Times-News)

But a Shriners Hospital might not be in Erie's backyard much longer.

The national Shriners board of trustees will consider two proposals that would close six of the Masonic organization's 22 hospitals, including the one in Erie. They are among three cost-cutting plans the board will discuss at its annual meeting in July.

"We had meetings with our employees and told them that it's only a proposal, and that it can't be implemented unless the Shriners vote on it at the July convention," said Bob Howden, Erie Shriners spokesman.

Howden referred other questions to the Shriners' national headquarters in Tampa, Fla.

Most Shriners hospitals, including Erie's, provide free orthopedic care to children. Others specialize in burn care.

The Shriners organization pays the costs out of an endowment that has shrunk from $8.5 billion to $5 billion over the past year because of the stock market decline, said Shriners Hospitals for Children Chief Executive Ralph Semb.

"We're in a financial shipwreck, like the Titanic," Semb said. "We are $300 million short in funding to run the hospitals for 2009."

To reduce expenses, Semb said, the Shriners will consider three proposals in July:

-Close the hospitals in Erie; Shreveport, La.; Greenville, N.C.; Spokane, Wash.; Springfield, Mass.; and Galveston, Texas. Reduce the other hospitals' 2009 budgets 5 to 9 percent.

-Close the same six hospitals, reduce the budgets of the other hospitals by about 10 percent, and eventually start billing families' health insurers for treatment.

-Keep all 22 hospitals open but slash their budgets 20 to 30 percent.

"That last option would paralyze the Erie hospital anyway," Semb said. "If you cut its budget by that amount, it's not going to be able to provide services."

This is not the first time the Shriners have looked at closing the Erie facility, which opened in 1927.

A 2002 consultant's report to the national board of trustees recommended closing Erie's and several other hospitals as a way to cut costs. The board didn't pursue it.

In 2005, delegates narrowly rejected a proposal to move Canada's only Shriners Hospital from Montreal to London, Ontario -- only two hours from Erie. Local Shriners had feared the move would have meant closing the Erie hospital.

Erie Shriners officials also laid off the equivalent of 39 full-time employees in January 2008. A shortage of surgeons forced the hospital to reduce the number of surgeries it performs.

It has recruited one full-time surgeon, but it still lacks a permanent chief of staff.

"We've looked at the Erie hospital for years," Semb said. "It's run efficiently, but it's been underutilized. They've had issues getting surgeons up there."

Families travel hundreds of miles to seek treatment for children at the Erie Shriners Hospital. The facility treated more than 8,000 children in 2008.

If it were to close, the next closest Shriners orthopedic facilities would be in Philadelphia, 420 miles away, and Chicago, 445 miles.

"We go to the Erie hospital so often, to change the bracing or for tests, that I don't know if we could afford to travel to Philly that often," Joy Mellish said.

Shriners officials have been talking with Hamot Medical Center about renting space at the downtown Erie hospital for a clinic and leasing its hospital to Hamot, Semb said.

Hamot spokeswoman Lucia Conti confirmed that preliminary discussions have been held with Shriners, but she said "nothing concrete" has been decided.

Hamot owns the land where the Shriners Hospital now sits.

"The bottom line is that we need a more efficient way of helping children," Semb said. "Maybe renting space at another hospital and putting our logo up there will work."

Petition Launched

An Erie woman, Michelle Wetsell, has started an online petition demanding that the Erie Shriners Hospital for Children remain open. You can access the petition at


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