Editorial: No Steward bailout

The still-unfolding crisis facing Steward Health Care System, which operates Carney Hospital, has been years in the making and comes as no surprise to readers of the Reporter. One of nine Massachusetts hospitals owned by Steward, Carney has been a lynchpin asset of the Dorchester community since it relocated here from South Boston in the 1950s. It’s important to note that the current owner is the fourth Carney “steward” over that time. It was originally operated by an order of Catholic nuns, the Daughters of Charity who were replaced by Caritas Christi, an arm of the Archdiocese of Boston, in the early 1990s.

Caritas sold its assets— including Carney— to a private health care outfit, Cerebus, in 2010. Cerebus soon morphed into the for-profit Steward, which is led by a former cardiac surgeon named Ralph De La Torre, who promised to invest in Carney and other community hospitals. And for a time, at least, they did make modest investments in the Dorchester Avenue facility.

But, much has changed since those early days. In 2016, Steward sold off its properties to a real estate holding company and realized a huge payday for its investors, including De la Torre. In the last two years, and particularly since the pivot out of the Covid-era, there has been a gradual, but noticeable, shift afoot at Carney. The Steward overlords fired public-facing staff who related to community groups and the media; they abruptly stopped promoting their emergency department as a public resource; and they entered into a prolonged dispute with nurses over fair pay and, alarmingly, the dearth of equipment available for patient care.

By last March, with alarm bells ringing about what these ominous signs foretold, the Carney’s president— Stan McLaren— addressed the Lower Mills civic association to appeal for a calm and patient fealty. But he admitted that there were grave challenges facing Carney and its sister hospitals. He returned last October with a similar refrain, which boiled down to: “Yes, we are behind on our bills. And we’re asking you to ask your lawmakers to bail us out.”

Steward contends that Carney, like other community hospitals, get shortchanged in reimbursement rates compared to downtown teaching hospitals – which is accurate. But that has long been the case. And it does not account for this for-profit corporation’s dire footing and mounting unpaid bills while their investor class has been enriched and their CEO sets sail in a $40 million yacht.

Steward has been telegraphing its intent for over a year now. They deployed lobbyists to get state lawmakers and the governor to bail them out of the mess they made by over-extending their empire and abandoning their commitment to places like Carney. They want us, the taxpayers, to do the belt-tightening, not them. And they’re using the menace of potential closures like a gun to our collective heads.
So far, it seems, Gov. Healey and most other leaders have signaled that they won’t fall for the trap. When a reporter asked Healey last Friday if the state would step in to relieve Steward’s debt, she replied, “No, Steward is not going to get bailed out.”

US Senator Elizabeth Warren went a step further on Monday.

“Steward’s explanations for its failings do not add up,” she said. “It’s clear that Steward executives put profits over patients and went to great lengths to hide critical information about its financial status from state officials, jeopardizing quality health care for the people of Massachusetts…I will continue investigating the decisions that led to this potential public health crisis.” 

Warren is spot-on. These are anxious times for employees and patients and the entire community. But no one should be sweating more than Steward’s executives, who must be held to account for their deeds.

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