Diana Simmons has been bringing her grandchildren and great grandchildren to MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center for more than 20 years.
“It’s a blessing to know when we came in that they were gonna be checked out,” she told a crowd gathered near the entrance to the hospital grounds Tuesday afternoon. “We brought Junior”– her grandson, who suffers from cerebral palsy, brain damage, lung disease, asthma and sometimes seizures—”here three months ago, and he had bronchitis. They diagnosed that within an hour. We were already out and they were bringing other patients in.”
But the pediatric unit that Simmons’ family mentioned is no more, however. Last month, MedStar Health, the nonprofit corporation that operates 10 hospitals in the Washington D.C.-Baltimore area, revealed it would be “consolidating” pediatric emergency services at Franklin Square into the main emergency department, and had “made the difficult decision to discontinue our pediatric inpatient service,” according to an April statement.
The hospital cited a decline in pediatric admissions of more than 40 percent over the last five years, a desire to reduce hospital admissions to reduce costs for Maryland’s health care system and increased patient reliance on urgent care centers instead of emergency rooms.
But many have viewed the suddenly announced closure of the pediatric ER as a betrayal, and have accused the hospital of prioritizing profits over the health of children.
That was the core message at a protest today at the hospital’s entrance, where at least 60 people—many of them current and former Franklin Square physicians, staff and patient families—wielded signs inscribed with phrases like “Children Over Profit,” and “Children’s Lives Matter,” and comparing MedStar Franklin Square president Samuel Moskowitz and chief operating officer Larry Strassner to greedy, conniving comic book villains.
Dr. Anna Reed, a former Franklin Square pediatrician who was among the 20 or so staffers who lost their jobs last month, helped organize the demonstration.
“I’m not doing this to complain about losing my job,” Reed, who’s already been hired for a new position at Johns Hopkins Hospital, told Baltimore Fishbowl before the demonstration on Tuesday. “With this particular mistake, I truly believe that we’re going to have very bad outcomes. It’s very, very concerning for these kids.”
Of particular concern is MedStar’s move to bring pediatric patients under the care of physicians and nurses serving adults in the ER. Reed said she’s already heard stories from former colleagues about ER staff lacking the proper training with equipment or medications to safely care for young patients.
“Adult medicine is not the same as pediatrics,” Reed said.
Mary Scott, who has worked in patient registration in the hospital’s emergency room for 13 years, recalled speaking with a nurse in the ER one day after the change took effect in April. The nurse was not used to working with pediatric patients but had been Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS)-certified by a former employer, so the hospital approved her to care for children in the ER. (MedStar offered bonus pay for PALS-certified staff who accepted, she said.) But that day, Scott said, the nurse told her she felt unprepared if a “really sick child came through those doors.”
There are other issues. Franklin Square was one of the only local pediatric units that performed Sexual Assault Forensic Examinations (SAFE) for children who have suffered abuse.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who appeared at the protest, told the crowd the firing of pediatrics unit chairman Dr. Scott Krugman in April was particularly painful, as the state had used him as an expert witness in child abuse cases. He commended the shuttered unit’s doctors, nurses and staff for their work caring for abused children, who he called “our most vulnerable victims.”
“To walk away from that is walking away from this community and more importantly, not contributing to the community’s benefit.”
Others noted the next-closest pediatric emergency room, at Johns Hopkins Bayview, is nearly 10 miles away. Krish Vignarajah, a Democratic candidate for governor who served as former first lady Michelle Obama’s policy director, preached the need to see “health care as a human right” at the protest, and considered the distance in that light.
“Even moving these services 10 miles away, we know can be the difference between whether [pediatric patients] get access to these services or not,” she said.
Protesters drew up a list of demands. Among them: That MedStar Franklin Square restore pediatric emergency services; replace Moskowitz and MedStar Health chief operating officer Dr. Joy Drass for their roles in the April decision; that the company adopt new policies that will ensure the input of community and medical staff before closing any medical service at the hospital; and that the Maryland General Assembly require hospitals receiving state funds, such as MedStar, to adopt such policies.
Asked to comment on the protest, MedStar spokeswoman Debra Schindler referred to a link on the company’s website for pediatrics-related queries, and sent along a statement suggesting the company’s decision fits into a pattern of other hospital administrators’ decision around the country consolidating pediatric and adult emergency rooms.
“The Emergency Department is staffed by physicians who are either pediatricians or emergency medicine-trained physicians, treating both children and adults,” the statement said. “As standard practice, both historically and presently, we will continue to transfer pediatric patients needing more intensive care to the most appropriate setting.”
The statement also noted “the only discontinued service is a very small inpatient pediatric unit,” and laid out a list of eight other areas of pediatric services that MedStar offer.
Toward the end of the protest, Reed called out company executives who earn millions in salary even as the system makes cuts like those at Franklin Square, and noted the hospital makes billions in revenue despite being a nonprofit corporation.
Simmons, whose family can no longer turn to Franklin Square’s pediatric inpatient unit, said MedStar’s decision represents “a very huge mistake for all our children and our grandchildren and great grandchildren. This hospital needs to think about the community before the profit…because that is our future.”