A Northwest Indiana Town Wants Answers About The Future Of A ‘Safety-Net’ Hospital

St. Catherine Hospital exterior
St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago, Ind., serves a high-minority, low-income community where many residents are on Medicaid or have no health insurance. Michael Puente / WBEZ
St. Catherine Hospital exterior
St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago, Ind., serves a high-minority, low-income community where many residents are on Medicaid or have no health insurance. Michael Puente / WBEZ

A Northwest Indiana Town Wants Answers About The Future Of A ‘Safety-Net’ Hospital

In May, Jose Blanco’s 91-year-old wife, Clemencia, suffered a stroke. He took her to the closest hospital, St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago, Ind., a blue-collar, majority-Black and Latino city a short distance from the Illinois-Indiana stateline.

But soon after they arrived, Blanco was told his wife would be transferred to St. Catherine’s sister hospital, Community Hospital, 11 miles away in Munster, Ind.

“They told me they have better doctors there, better care,” said Blanco, 81, a retired steelworker.

Blanco doesn’t know why his wife was transferred to another hospital, considering St. Catherine is Northwest Indiana’s only five-star facility as rated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

His wife’s physician, Dr. Paula Benchik-Abrinko, said it appears there’s a growing trend to transfer patients from St. Catherine to Community Hospital.

“Strokes are not treated there. If a stroke shows up at the hospital, they are sent to Munster. They used to give chemotherapy and treat people for leukemia. Now that has been taken to Munster,” Benchik-Abrinko said.

St. Catherine is a safety-net hospital, meaning it’s located in a high-minority, low-income community. It predominantly serves Black and Latino clients, many of whom are on Medicaid or do not have health insurance. Some are undocumented.

As clients and services are rerouted to hospitals in more affluent areas, questions have begun to arise about the future of St. Catherine and treatment options for those in East Chicago.

Those questions are exacerbated by the changes to Franciscan Health Hammond, five miles to the west. Late last month, Franciscan announced that its bed capacity will decrease from more than 200 to just eight.

Benchik-Abrinko, who has been an attending physician at St. Catherine since the 1990s, said a number of staff at the hospital have been let go in recent months, including its infectious disease coordinator, emergency department director and the head of its cardiology department.

“I’m not privy to talk amongst administration, but the hospital appears to be in the process of being disassembled,” she said.

Others in the community have also voiced concerns about the future viability of St. Catherine, but have received few answers or details.

“Back in December, I started having people reach out to me in the community saying, ‘Hey, we’ve heard rumors. Have you heard about this? Do you know about this?’” said Indiana state Rep. Earl Harris Jr., whose district includes East Chicago.

The rumors include everything from downsizing, closing or changing the primary focus of St. Catherine.

Harris reached out to St. Catherine CEO Leo Correa in December. Correa assured him of the hospital’s future, but questions kept coming to Harris.

Harris reached out again just a couple of months ago in an email.

“I wrote, ‘Hey, people are still talking. Here’s a suggestion: What if you, the hospital, put out a statement, making it clear there are no plans to close the hospital. That would go a long way to calming the community’s fears,’” Harris said.

Harris never got a response.

St. Catherine is operated by Community Foundation of Northwest Indiana, a three-hospital system based in Munster. It declined to make Correa available for an interview.

In a statement, a spokeswoman said the health care system is investing in St. Catherine, including making improvements to its cancer care, behavioral health services, diabetes care and other areas.

“St. Catherine Hospital has been a vital part of East Chicago and its neighboring communities for nearly 100 years. As the surrounding communities’ needs have changed, so have the services and scope of care that the hospital offers,” said Marie Forszt, vice president of marketing and corporate communications for Community Foundation of Northwest Indiana, in an email.

But hospital statements stand in direct contrast to a half-dozen physicians or staff WBEZ has spoken to over the last several months. Some declined to speak on the record for fear of retaliation.

Dr. Kim Arthur, an OB-GYN who once served as president of the medical staff at St. Catherine, said not only are personnel leaving, so are services.

“A lot of these patients are being directed toward Community Hospital. It’s a big concern because now the patients are being left with very few choices. They have to look outside of their community,” Arthur said.

Another physician, Dr. Ghassan Jano, an oncologist who cares for patients at both St. Catherine and Community hospitals, sees troubling signs as well.

“St. Catherine Hospital has been one of the premier centers, providing excellent quality care for the community,” Jano said. “We are just very concerned about the rumors that they might be leaving and following what Franciscan Hospital has done recently, and [that] there’s going to be a health care crisis.”

According to the Indiana State Department of Health, St. Catherine cut its full-time staff by 180 and the number of beds from 220 to 197 between 2017 and 2020. Records show it also generates much less revenue as compared to its two sister hospitals, including Community Hospital, both located in more affluent areas.

Safety-net hospitals such as St. Catherine have been impacted by the pandemic, said Beth Feldpush of America’s Essential Hospitals organization.

“The community has been harder hit, the patients have been harder hit, but the workforce has been as well. They were on slim financial footing before the pandemic and they continue to struggle,” Feldpush said.

Indiana state Sen. Lonnie Randolph, whose office is a block away from St. Catherine, said safety-net hospitals get money from the federal government to provide care in underserved communities.

Records from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show St. Catherine received more than $25 million as part of the CARES Act passed by Congress.

“The hospital’s not there to make money anyway. And they’ve got all kinds of different governmental programs, especially with Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement process,” Randolph said. “I’m hoping that the suggestion that Rep. Harris made concerning a public statement will go a long way [to] cut down on the rumors, maybe eliminate them completely.”

To find answers, Hoosiers will have an additional tool coming July 1. That’s when a new state law goes into effect that requires all not-for-profit hospitals in Indiana to attend a public meeting with the communities they serve.

The law was co-sponsored by state Sen. Ed Charbonneau, a Republican from Valparaiso.

“What we’re trying to do is get more and more information to the public. And also hold a public meeting to talk about what they’re doing in the community as part of their responsibility as a non-for-profit hospital,” Charbonneau said.

No date has been set for a public hearing for St. Catherine.

Jose Blanco, who is still caring for his wife, isn’t aware of the moves taken by St. Catherine. He just hopes the hospital is around to continue providing for his community.

“They need a hospital here in East Chicago,” Blanco said. “Why should they close it? If they do that, people are going to have to get over there to Community [hospital]. I guess they are just going to have to go there.”

Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.