Bernie Sanders at the Hahnemann University Hospital rally, July 15, 2019, in Philadelphia, PA. (Flickr/MIchael Stokes)
In 2018, investment banker Joel Freedman bought Philadelphia's Hahnemann University Hospital in 2018, stripped it for parts and ran the hospital into the ground in just 18 months. Now he plans to close the facility, a literal lifeline in that it serves patients that are low-income and, therefore, disproportionately people of color. This would mean 3,000 jobs lost, around 2,000 of which are union jobs. Hahnemann's emergency room sees around 56,000 patients per year, a number no other hospital in the area can absorb, and because Hahnemann's patients are poor, most wouldn't want to absorb the population if they could.
Why did an investment banker buy a safety-net hospital to begin with? These hospitals never make money (standard operating procedure is "doing more with less"). It seems that Freedman was never interested in the health care side of the hospital business but very interested in its real estate. If he succeeds in his plan, he is set to make an enormous profit off of shuttering the hospital, causing a public health emergency and destroying a few thousand good union jobs.
On Monday, July 15, Senator Bernie Sanders came to Philadelphia, and together with the area labor movement, pulled together a 2,000-person rally outside Hahnemann. The entire mobilization was organized in 36 hours. As a result of the attention Sanders brought to the issue and the impressive mobilization on the part of local unions, Governor Tom Wolf has stepped in to save the hospital, offering $15 million to keep it open temporarily.
In the end, this may be a pyrrhic victory for Hahnemann—that amounts to an honorable surrender—but without this mobilization Hahnemann would have been closed down well before Sanders' speech, which would have left some 800 expectant mothers unsure about where they would give birth, with few other hospitals to turn to. Hundreds of patients would be left in limbo; would Temple take their insurance? How could they get to the University of Pennsylvania? Isn't Jefferson is too small to absorb them?
While it remains to be seen if we can keep Hahnemann open permanently, a few political observations are noteworthy:
First, Sanders successfully connected with the local union movement and quickly used his campaign infrastructure to organize two mass mobilizations, unlike any other candidate or campaign in recent memory. Even though every other presidential candidate was in Philadelphia this week for the "Netroots Nation" conference, not one stuck their neck out for Hahnemann. Not Senator Elizabeth Warren and not former Vice President Joe Biden (the latter of whom has set up his campaign headquarters in Philadelphia). So while the press crowed about how Warren captivated the hearts of young liberals at the progressive conference, Bernie impressed the Philadelphia labor movement with his commitment to the issue, itself a refutation of Senator Chuck Schumer's flimsy "for every blue-collar Democrat [lost]...we...pick up two moderate Republicans" strategy. In Philadelphia (or Pennsylvania more broadly), the union vote matters quite a bit more than the Netroots constituency.
Second, Sanders rightly stressed that Hahnemann would not have to close under a Medicare for All system but even more impressive was his introduction of a bill to establish a $20 billion fund to allow states to buy hospitals from bankrupting hucksters like Freedman, if and when they run them into the ground. While other candidates are waffling on whether to abolish private insurance, Bernie is pushing forward calling for state ownership of hospitals.