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Shriners may shutter 6 hospitals but not Salt Lake's

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Deseret News

Shriners may shutter 6 hospitals but not Salt Lake's

Friday, April 10 2009

By Katrina A. Goggins
Associated Press

Shriners Hospital in Greenville, S.C., Freemasons

Shriners Hospital in Greenville, S.C., is one of the hospitals that may be closed due to financial problems.

Mary Ann Chastain, Associated Press
GREENVILLE, S.C. Shriners hospitals, which have provided free care since before the Great Depression, are considering closing a quarter of their facilities as donations stagnate, costs increase and the charity's endowment shrivels.

The group's director says it's the only viable option.

Officials at the Florida-based organization say it is siphoning $1 million a day from its endowment to balance the budget for 22 hospitals in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Meanwhile, they say, that fund has fallen to $5 billion from $8 billion in less than a year because of the sputtering stock market and a charitable giving slump that has hurt philanthropies nationwide. The fund has been declining since 2001. The group will vote this summer on the closures.

"Unless we do something, the clock is ticking and within five to seven years we'll probably be out of the hospital business and not have any hospitals," Ralph Semb, chief executive officer of Shriners Hospitals for Children, told The Associated Press.

In cities where hospitals may close, supporters and hospital staff are scheduling fundraisers and posting online messages of support on social networking Web sites.

In Greenville, S.C., Bridget Myers and her daughter are turning to churches and friends, collecting money in a bucket tagged with pictures of X-rays and Shriners patients.

"I've collected 92 dollars in two days," said Brooklynn Myers, 14, who received scoliosis treatment at the Shriners' Greenville hospital. "Me and my mom feel like it's heartbreaking we'd have to drive all the way to Lexington (Ky.) and we've made special bonds here."

Widely known today for burn and orthopedic care for children, the Shriners Hospitals system opened in 1922 with a facility in Shreveport, La., that specialized in treating polio. By the 1960s, the group had hospitals nationwide and expanded its care to include spinal cord injury rehabilitation, cleft lip and palate care and medical research.

More than 1 million children have been treated at the hospitals, which were created by the fraternal organization of the same name whose members are known for wearing red fezzes and driving miniature cars in parades. The care is free to all.

In 2007, the fraternal group was hit with accusations it used money intended for the hospitals to throw parties but only a fraction of the hospitals' funds are raised by the group. Most of the money to operate the hospitals has come from interest from the endowment, Semb said.

Semb said this year's operating budget for the hospital system is $856 million. The budget has risen by $100 million each of the past two years while donation levels remained static, he said.

Last month, the Shiners' board of trustees voted to close four of the group's eight research centers and lay off about 40 people at its administrative office.

At the organization's annual meeting July 6-8 in San Antonio, about 1,200 Shriners will vote whether to close hospitals in Shreveport, La.; Erie, Pa.; Spokane, Wash.; Springfield, Mass., and Greenville. Semb said they were chosen mainly because of too many vacant beds.

The organization also will consider whether a hospital in Galveston, Texas closed temporarily after damage from Hurricane Ike will remain shuttered.

Shriners Hospitals for Children in Salt Lake City is not among the six hospitals out of the 22 that is under consideration for closure, according to Mike Babcock, director of public relations for the local medical facility.

"The Salt Lake hospital is one of the most efficient hospitals in the system and we have the capacity to take on any patients that may come from one of the hospitals that closes, if that in fact is the case. It most likely would be the hospital in Spokane, Wash.," he said.

The Salt Lake facility currently sees 5,000 children per year that come from Utah and six other western states in the U.S., as well as two states in Mexico.

If the Spokane hospital is closed, then other patients coming to Salt Lake City would likely be coming from Montana, northern Idaho and Canada.

"The outlook is not good, but we know that we can right it," Semb said. "And we can within a five-year period of time get our expenses down far enough to equal the income we have coming in and hopefully start building on that endowment fund."

Contributing: Linda Thomson, Deseret News

Further Reading:

The Shriners - The 'Krafty' Klowns