With the Bronx considered the epicenter of COVID-19 at one point last year, hospitals were forced to dip into their own funds to purchase equipment and supplies needed to save lives. Those same hospitals are still waiting for FEMA to reimburse the money, with some elected officials now calling on the federal agency to rectify the situation immediately.
With a shortage of ventilators, medication, PPE, masks and much more, the NYC Health + Hospitals (H+H) system spent $860 million of its own funds, assuming FEMA would reimburse them. H+H, which includes 11 public hospitals, has been waiting to receive assistance from FEMA since October 2020.
U.S Rep. Ritchie Torres and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, both Democrats, were joined by Lincoln Hospital staff, on July 23, to demand FEMA reimburse the city’s public hospital system for expenses related to the pandemic.
Hospitals, 911 and emergency medical services agencies — including fire service, third government service and certain private nonprofit services — are eligible to apply for a 75% federal cost share reimbursement from FEMA for certain costs related to the COVID-19 response.
“FEMA is debating whether H+H is eligible,” Torres told the Bronx Times. “If H+H doesn’t qualify for the refund then no hospital should.”
In a letter dated July 9, Torres was joined by the NYC Congressional Delegation urging FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell to reimburse H+H by July 23. FEMA, however, has not responded to the letter and has not indicated if it will fulfill the reimbursement request.
According to Torres, FEMA representatives are claiming the money can only go to hospitals that expanded their facilities during the pandemic. Yet for places like Lincoln Hospital, the entire hospital was dedicated to fighting COVID-19 for 16 months. “H+H was the epicenter of the COVID-19 public health emergency,” he said. “If there’s any health system in America that deserves a FEMA reimbursement it’s H+H.”
Schumer could not fathom how a place like Lincoln Hospital, which was the busiest emergency room before COVID-19, has not yet received money from FEMA.
During the pandemic, Lincoln’s emergency room bed capacity was expanded by 120% and its Intensive Care Unit by 316%, according to Schumer. As the man who FEMA often comes to for help, Schumer said if he scratches their back, they better scratch his.
“All of these workers risked their lives and went above and beyond to save lives,” he said. “They (H+H) shelled out a whole lot of money thinking FEMA would reimburse them. Ritchie Torres and I will not stop fighting until we get all of those dollars.”
Among the people who witnessed the staff at H+H battle the pandemic was Dr. Mitchell Katz, H+H president and CEO. He said that when an influx of people were admitted to the ER during COVID-19 “no one said ‘can the hospital afford this,’ but rather people’s lives were at risk.”
“Were we thinking go to the special FEMA ward we built, no we just said everybody is going to be taken care of,” he said. “Now, we need FEMA to help make good on that promise.”
One person who was on the front lines of the pandemic was Marsha Wilson, an ER nurse at Lincoln Hospital, who never witnessed anything like COVID-19 in her 20-plus years in the field.
There were days when 10 patients needed to be intubated, but there were only 10 ventilators. She and her colleagues worked long days, were short on PPE, barely ate, were the last people to see patients before they died and were emotionally drained.
“I remember during this COVID season I dreaded coming to work, but I came anyway,” Wilson said. “We still did what we had to do because we knew lives were at stake. It took a toll on all of us.”
Reach Jason Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter @bxtimes and Facebook @bxtimes.