As much energy as the Spokane community put into rallying behind the city’s Shriners Hospital for Children, that’s how much relief it felt over Monday’s news from the Shriners’ 135th Imperial Council Session in San Antonio.
For now, the relief is tentative, but if the status holds through the end of the session Thursday afternoon, the feared closure of six Shriners hospitals, including Spokane’s, has been forestalled.
The news, the community energy and the relief are not unique to Spokane. They are matched in Erie, Pa.; Greenville, S.C.; Shreveport, La.; Springfield, Mass.; and, probably most of all, Galveston, Texas, where that city’s hospital and burn center have been closed for nearly 10 months but now is to be reopened.
Still, while heavy civic pressure can force organizations like the Shriners to rethink curtailing valuable local services, it can’t overcome economic reality.
Nationally, the Shriners have been giving away orthopedic care and burn treatment since 1922 because they had a million members to recruit patients and raise funds, eventually building an endowment fund of more than $8 billion. But the membership is about a third what it once was, donations are down, and the economy is suffering, slicing interest earnings and forcing the organization to bleed the endowment fund by $1 million a day to supplement hospital budgets. Today the endowment fund is below $5 billion, and Shriner Hospitals chief executive Ralph Semb has predicted the organization will be out of the hospital business in five to seven years if something isn’t done.
One such something was to have been closing the six designated hospitals (out of 22 in the system), but a vote by 1,500 delegates at San Antonio nixed that idea, which had come from system administrators.
Nobody ought to be suggesting that prolonging the existence of six hospitals for a few more years is worth letting the whole system go away. So, rather than revive the closure plan that delegates turned down on Monday, the organization is reconsidering alternatives up till now resisted.
Billing Medicaid and insurance companies for patients who have coverage invites a lot of red tape. And relocating at another hospital might diminish Shriners’ stand-alone identity. But either of those inconveniences would be minor compared with closing.
If the Shriners leave San Antonio this week without altering Monday’s decision, we’ll be able to exhale. But it won’t mean the problem has been solved. Having avoided a strategy that isn’t acceptable, the hospitals and the communities they serve now have to be just as dedicated to finding one that is.