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Monday, July 6, 2009

Shriners weigh hospitals' fate

copied from

Monday, July 06, 2009

Born without lower legs, Gina M. Gilday became a patient at Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield when she was just 2 weeks old.

The hospital provided her free prosthetic legs year after year as she grew; when she turned 16, the hospital staff directed her to a specialized driving school that could teach her how to oper ate a car with hand controls, therapists taught her day-to-day skills and, most important, they taught her parents she could grow up to be a strong, independent woman.

"Everything in my life comes down to that place," said Gilday, an Elms College senior from Hampden. "To think other children will not get the same opportunity is terrible."

The fate of the Springfield hospital and five others across the country is in the hands this week of the about 1,300 trustees for the Shriners corporation. The group begins meeting today in San Antonio, Texas, to discuss how to deal with a financial crisis that could lead the entire organization to bankruptcy in five to seven years. A two-thirds vote of the membership will be required to close any of the hospitals.

The organization, which never charges families or their insurance, operates through interest from an endowment fund. The stock market crisis decimated the fund, dropping it from $8 billion to $5 billion, and forced the hospitals to have to tap into the principal to help pay day-to-day expenses.

The separate Melha Shrine fraternity, which has nearly 200 groups across the country, including one in Springfield, works as the main fund-raisers for the hospitals.

One proposal to save money is to close the five orthopedic hospitals in Springfield, Greenville, S.C., Spokane, Wash., Shreveport, La., and Erie, Pa. Trustees will also decide if they should repair a burn hospital in Galveston, Texas, which has been closed for more than a year after being damaged by a hurricane.

"I think it is probably the most historic convention we will have," said Allen G. Zippin, of Longmeadow, a past chairman and current member of the Springfield hospital's board of governors and one of the voting trustees.

Since the announcement was made about the possibility of the Springfield Shriners Hospital closing, people throughout New England joined Western Massachusetts residents in efforts to save the hospital. They wrote letters, sent e-mails, signed petitions and held a massive rally across the street from the Carew Street hospital.

Zippin said he is hoping the closing of hospitals does not even come to a vote at the annual convention; if it happens, a vote is likely either Tuesday or Wednesday.

"We are feeling a little more optimistic than we were a few months ago because there are a lot of interesting proposals out there," he said.

One is to form a commission to examine the entire organization and scrutinize the financial outlook of all 22 Shriners hospitals. That commission would then submit a report with recommendations on how to turn around financial problems, Zippin said.

Even if the commission comes to the same conclusion that the hospitals must be closed, it will likely have to wait a year because the trustees only hold one annual meeting, he said.

But Ralph W. Semb, president and chief operating officer of Shriners Hospitals for Children, who lives in Erving, questioned the idea of forming a commission.

"That is forming another commission after we have had three already," he said. "They have all come back with the same thing: Close hospitals."

But closing hospitals or forming a commission are not the only two things the trustees will discuss. Officials for Springfield's hospital have submitted a creative plan to revamp the way the hospital runs, which will lower operating costs. Several other hospital have submitted ideas as well.

Semb said he believes Springfield's preliminary plan, which calls for working in a partnership with neighboring Baystate Medical Center, is worth considering and could help keep the facility open.

"I realize there has been some effort and I would like to see that continue," he said. "There are negotiations on going with Baystate."

Zippin said the nine-member Springfield delegation does hope to present the plan to revamp the hospital to trustees.

That plan, submitted to the Shriners Hospitals board in April, calls for the two hospitals to work together to provide pediatric services. One portion favors having some of the most expensive surgical procedures performed at Baystate, which does bill insurance companies, and have children transferred to Shriners to recover, he said.

"Baystate has signed a letter of intent to work with us," Zippin said. "They see advantages in collaboration and coordination of services."