Emergency care remains out of reach for aging residents of Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen


Abandoned St. Vincent’s Hospital still leaves a void in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen communities. Photo: Averi Harper

Abandoned St. Vincent’s Hospital still leaves a void in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen communities. Photo: Averi Harper

Access to healthcare information and services are among top concerns for Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen residents over 65, a group that is projected to increase nearly 50 percent by 2033, according to a community survey.

The Seniors Community Survey, conducted in June by the Actors Fund and the Visiting Nurse Service of New York’s Center for Home Care Policy and Research,  also evaluated the needs of the 17 percent of the Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen population that is 60 and over, based on information from more than 1,200 respondents.

Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen residents are still affected by the 2010 closure of St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center in the West Village.  Residents must now travel far outside of their community to get emergency medical services—crosstown to Beth Israel Medical Center or uptown to Roosevelt Medical Center.  

Before St. Vincent’s closed, 85-year-old Shirley Gunson, who suffers from chronic hypertension, would go there for emergency medical care. Gunson, a two-time divorcee who lives alone — like 69 percent of the respondents to the Seniors Community Survey — now calls an ambulance when she has to go to the emergency room.  Even in the care of ambulance workers, she worries about how long it takes to get to Beth Israel.

“The traffic is terrible,” said Gunson.

She lives in the Robert Fulton Houses on 17th Street and 9th Avenue in Chelsea, and said that some of her fellow residents have stopped seeking medical care because of the hassle of leaving their neighborhood when they don’t feel well.

“The elderly people here in the projects, some of them have given up. They don’t go to Beth Israel anymore and, you know what, they’re dying in the apartments,” said Gunson.  She said she found one of her best friends dead in his apartment after he stopped going to the doctor.

Haley Glazer, a geriatric care manager and president of the New York Geriatric Care Managers Association, said the closure has had an effect on not only seniors but the community as a whole. “The end result is that people in the community have lost out on an essential health resource and I don’t know how the average citizen undoes that,” she said. Glazer said home healthcare aides are ideal, but understands that sort of one-on-one care is too expensive for many families. She hopes that other community members make voluntary efforts to help elderly neighbors in need. “[These] people are very isolated,” Glazer said. “They really struggle.”

Dr. Lynn Tepper, a professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, said that the closure of community hospitals is outrageous, and blamed inequalities in the distribution of resources that result in closures of community hospitals while large teaching hospitals stay afloat.

Teaching hospitals in New York City are in historically poor neighborhoods, allowing low-income and uninsured patients in those areas to get free care from young doctors, but those hospitals are a considerable distance from Chelsea.

“They are losing access. Those people need care in their community and they’re not getting it,” said Tepper, complaining of what she called a broken hospital system. One solution would be to reimburse community hospitals at higher rates, to to keep them stable and open for business— but Tepper believes that reimbursement rates will only get worse as Affordable Care Act policies are enforced.

Emergency room overcrowding is another barrier to receiving emergency care, and Tepper suggested that more privately-owned urgent care facilities could ease emergency room overcrowding by seeing patients with minor medical issues. There are already several urgent care facilities scattered on the west side, but not enough to reduce the overload.

“The emergency rooms are packed, I mean, standing room only,” said Tepper.

Beth Israel Medical Center on First Avenue and 16th Street renovated its emergency department in 2010 in an effort to more efficiently accommodate a new influx of patients, due in part to the closure of St. Vincent’s.  According to Beth Israel Department of Emergency Medicine, the renovation allowed doctors to see 30,000 more patients a year, but a trip crosstown can still take up valuable time.

Gunson wishes she could do more to address the absence of emergency care in her community. “If I could hit the lottery, I’d be the first one to get an architect and see what I could do,” she said.