Editorial: Carney’s parent company is neglecting a neighborhood asset

There’s no “imminent” plan to close Carney Hospital, Dorchester’s primary health care facility. At least that’s the latest word from Stan McLaren, the man who currently manages the hospital’s day-to-day operations as its president.

But there are ominous signs that the 159-bed hospital and its emergency department are on shaky ground. And, despite the best intentions of people who work at Carney, the parent company that has owned it since 2010 – Steward Health Care – has shown little interest in shoring up this critically important institution. Instead, the Texas-based for-profit seems content to let Carney wither away, even as it buys up health care facilities in other parts of the country.

This is not the first time that Carney has faced existential questions. The hospital has had three different owners over the past 50 years, including the Daughters of Charity, an order of Catholic nuns who ran it until they were replaced by Caritas, an outfit overseen by the archdiocese of Boston, in the 1990s.

In 2010, when the for-profit Steward took over, its CEO, Ralph De La Torre, pledged that Carney would be part of the company’s long-term business model, despite the fact that even then it barely broke even. To his credit, even amid five leadership changes in Carney’s president’s office, Steward has kept the place running.

During the early months of the pandemic, the health system labeled the Dot Ave. campus as the nation’s first “dedicated Covid-19 hospital” – retrofitting rooms and marshalling protective gear and devices needed to relocate the sick and dying to Dorchester Ave.

But as the hospital has emerged into what is now a largely post-pandemic phase, there are troubling new signs of uncertainty and disinvestment. Nurses at Carney have been working without a contract since December and say negotiations have been bogged down. Steward has hollowed out its marketing presence and laid off public-facing employees who used to engage the Dorchester and Mattapan communities. And there has been virtually no effort to tell the public why they should turn to Carney for their health care needs, which makes its prognosis for attracting new patients and, therefore, new revenue, bleaker by the day.

It’s a tough spot for McLaren, who is left to try to explain the future to increasingly concerned neighbors. In an interview on March 7, he told the Reporter:

“We don’t have any current plans to close, but I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. Carney has struggled financially for years, and the pandemic has exacerbated things.”

McLaren brought a similar message to the Lower Mills Civic Association on Tuesday night, where he faced some tough questions from neighbors who are anxious about the Carney’s future. He correctly points out that Carney is being dealt an unfair hand by having to settle for lower reimbursement rates from both private and public insurance. The same procedures performed at Carney can yield 10 to 30 percent less than downtown teaching hospitals, he claims.

But that was the case in 2010 when Steward took charge— and it has been the case over the intervening years. What has changed, some worry, is the corporation’s mission to keep Carney and other community hospitals competitive.

McLaren seems sincere in his aspirations to keep Carney functioning as a community hospital, but he can’t be expected to do it alone. Carney has a compelling story to tell, but once-a-year speeches to civic groups won’t move the needle. Unless Steward starts investing more resources into recruiting patients along with new staff, it’s hard to see a viable path forward.

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