Marie Firestone held a small sign Thursday that read, “I can walk because of Shriners.”
When she was a girl, she and her mother drove every Thursday for a year to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Spokane, where doctors cut the casts from her feet and legs, measured her progress in reversing a birth defect that was a cross between pigeon-toes and club-feet, and affixed new casts.
Firestone grew up in a poor family, and she still marvels at the free medical care given to 125,000 children each year at 22 Shriners hospitals in the United States.
Now 43, she hopes her story and thousands like it across the Inland Northwest will reach the Shriners national board gathering in San Antonio next week to vote on a 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 recession has hit the national Shriners organization hard. 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. And new cash gifts, which made the endowment possible in the first place, have dropped.
Ralph Semb, chairman of the national Shriners board, has called the situation a crisis and has asked the board to consider closing six hospitals.
Local Shriners have other ideas.
Von Chimienti, a member of the El Katif Shrine in Spokane, expects the vote to close will fail. Instead, he predicted, the Shriners will adopt new measures, including billing insurers and Medicaid for the first time and meting out budget cuts of 6 percent to 7 percent across the hospital system.
The 170 employees of the Spokane hospital handle 8,500 patient visits a year. Local Shriner Jay Smith – along with national Shiners leaders – says that’s not enough. They point to the hospital’s inpatient count of about six children, a 20 percent occupancy rate for the facility with 30 beds.
But 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, appeared at a Thursday press conference to highlight the successes of the local hospital and urge the organization to avoid closures.
Mike Prior said letting a charity like the Shriners hospital close would be 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.”