Massachusetts Wakes Up to a Hospital Nightmare

THE AMERICAN PROSPECT, Maureen Tkacik, January 30, 2024

Erstwhile Boston media darling Steward Health Care has been strip-mining hospitals for a decade now. The power elite may finally be paying attention.

The group of fresh medical school grads knew something wasn’t right with Steward Health Care when they showed up in Dorchester, Massachusetts to start their residencies in Carney Hospital’s inaugural family medicine residency class during the summer of 2014 and learned the president who had recruited them had already been fired.

  Soon afterward, a Steward administrator admitted the new family medicine clinic and the pediatric ward they had toured on their recruitment visit were never actually opening, and that the nearby hospital at which residents were supposed to learn how to deliver babies was being shuttered entirely. Shortly after that, they showed up to work to learn their program director had been fired. Ultimately, the residents decided to call the graduate  medical accreditation agency and get the program shut down.

“It was all smoke and mirrors…they had no intention of giving us any of the resources we needed to learn what we needed to learn or do a good job,” remembers a preventative medicine physician and former Carney medical resident, recalling an afternoon when a patient had a heart attack and she had to Google “how to operate an EKG machine” because she could not find a single nurse or technician in the building to help her. “It’s hard to convey how much of a crisis it felt like as a first-year resident,” another former Carney resident, family physician Stephanie Arnold, wrote in an essay for the Prospectlast year about her experiences working for private equity owned health care providers.

It was not the first or last time Steward has been accused of making big, empty promises. In 2011, they promised the urologists of Brockton they were building a prostate cancer “center of excellence” at Good Samaritan Hospital: That never happened, though Steward apparently upgraded the ICU’s wiring, which we know because they allegedly skipped out on paying the contractor who did the job. In 2017, Steward told the government of Malta that it would turn the Mediterranean micro-state’s three aging hospitals into a hub for medical tourism, but instead they spent the 400 million euros they got for the job on … a lot of lawyers; an appeals court judge last fall called the contract a “simulation” designed “to draft contracts intended not to deliver quality medical service, but other things.” And in 2019, Steward promised the community of West Monroe, Louisiana, that Glenwood Regional Medical Center would become a leader in a “groundbreaking” new form of cardiac surgery; last fall, the state health department threatened to shut down the hospital after an inspection revealed it was so behind on its water, sewer, and utility bills its hot water had been cut off. State Rep. Mike Echols, who represents northern Louisiana and used to operate a large physician practice in the state, described Steward to the Prospect as “one of those corporate terrorists who come in and loot the ship and drain it dry.”

Indeed. Yesterday, Steward announced it would be closing a hospital it owns in Texas at 7 a.m. next Friday. Its New England Sinai Hospital is shutting soon after that. The company has hired the restructuring adviser AlixPartners, which is often a precursor to a Chapter 11 filing. Physicians say that few of its 30-some hospitals are in shape to survive. Carney Hospital has long been nicknamed “Carnage,” and a group of Steward hospitals formerly named Wuesthoff Health System are still widely known within their northeastern Florida community as “Worst Off.”

For years, officials in Steward’s home base of Massachusetts, where a media darling cardiac surgeon named Ralph de la Torre founded the hospital chain in 2010, had conspicuously little to say about the company that owns nine hospitals comprising more than 2,000 beds in the state. That changed this week, when the state’s 11-member congressional delegation, all Democrats, issued an unusual joint statement in response to a Boston Globe story about the company’s insolvency, demanding an explanation of its “financial position, the status of their Massachusetts facilities, and their plans to ensure the communities they serve are not abandoned.” Attorney General Andrea Campbell, who as a Boston City Council member had Steward’s neglected Carney Hospital in her district, offered an even more tepid commenton the matter to the public radio station WBUR: “We’re currently in problem-solving mode, willing to use every power available to us to protect these priorities, while looking to a time in the near future to seriously address how Steward got in this situation” (italics mine).