Marie Firestone held a small sign Thursday that said it all: “I can walk because of Shriners.”
Every Thursday for a year she and her mom would drive to the Shriners Hospital for Children where doctors would cut the casts from her little feet and legs, measure the progress in reversing a birth defect described as a cross between pigeon-toes and club-feet, and then affix new casts.
She later had to wear corrective shoes every hour of every day.
Firestone grew up in a poor family and still marvels at the free medical care given to 125,000 children each year at 22 Shriners hospitals stretched across the United States.
Now, at age 43, she hopes that her story and the thousands like it across the Inland Northwest will reach the men gathering in San Antonio next week to vote on a dramatic proposal to close six Shriners hospitals, including Spokane’s.
She was among dozens of former patients, politicians, local Shriners, and others gathered for a “Save Our Shriners” rally outside the hospital on South Monroe Street.
The economic meltdown has cost the national Shriners organization. Its endowment has fallen from $8.5 billion to $5 billion. Meanwhile, the cost of providing medical care continues to climb, further draining the endowment.
Making matters worse is the drop in new cash gifts that made the endowment possible in the first place.
Ralph Semb, chairman of the national Shriners board, has called the situation a crisis and has asked the board to carefully consider closingthe six hospitals.
Local Shriners have other ideas.
Von Chimienti, a member of the El Katif Shrine in Spokane, expects the vote will fail. Instead, he anticipates that Shriners will adopt other measures that include billing insurers and Medicaid for the first time, and meting out budget cuts of 6 to 7 percent across the hospital system beginning this year and perhaps even deeper next year if the financial outlook doesn’t improve.
Budget cuts worry the 170 hospital employees, who contend the facility already runs lean to meet the 8,500 patient visits each year, said Jay Smith, another local Shriner.
Semb and other national Shiners leaders contend the Spokane hospital doesn’t treat enough patients. They point to the hospital’s inpatient count of about six children – a 20 percent occupancy rate for the facility with 30 beds.
Closing the hospital would force children and their families to travel to Portland or Salt Lake City for care.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, and Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, a Republican, joined together during a Thursday press conference to highlight the successes of the local hospital and urge the organization to avoid closures.
Mike Prior said at a time when officials are making serious decisions about industry bailouts and health reforms, allowing charities such as Shriners to struggle and possibly close children’s hospitals is unthinkable.
His 14-year-old daughter Barbara had surgery this week for scoliosis that was growing so severe that it might have turned fatal.
“If I could trade places with her I would,” he said, waving a sign in support of keeping the hospital open, “but she’s going to be OK. She’s strong and so are the people here.”