Loud voices echoed from the back of the auditorium Tuesday night during the community forum to discuss the fate of Cooper Green Mercy Hospital. At times, the discussion became heated. If nothing else, it was made obvious that the community is unsettled by the fading heartbeat of the hospital that so many have depended on for the last 40 years.
The panel of of experts tasked with representing the medical community of Birmingham, as well as with presenting a solution to the Cooper Green crisis, consisted of the president of the Jefferson County Medical Society, Dr. Stephen Steinmetz, and president elect, Dr. Greg Ayers. However, there was no solid solution to be presented, but rather an abundance of questions with vague answers.
The current system set in place, Ayers explained, is lacking in terms of continuity and practicality. “There is no framework to the system. Our goal is to have accessible healthcare for the poor and right now we don’t have that,” Ayers said during the second round of community discussions about the looming healthcare crisis in Birmingham. “The current solution put forth by the Jefferson County Commission has done nothing for the administrative issues at Cooper Green.”
It would seem that there is a widening fissure between the problem and solution at Cooper Green. Ayers told the room of about 30 concerned residents and healthcare professionals that one of the bigger problems they are facing now is that it takes too long to recruit and train new physicians to staff the hospital, or even volunteer their time. As for a solution, that much remains unknown as the clock continues ticking down until December 31st deadline when the hospital will close permanently. In order to save Cooper Green, the panel urged, this gap must be bridged. The audience agreed.
“There is a connection here between the lack in public transit and what’s happening at Cooper Green. Who are these supposed to be serving? The poor, the indigent. We need to get mad as hell here,” John Wright Jr., a concerned citizen of Birmingham, said to raucous applause.
“How can we be considered an All-American City when we have a lousy healthcare system and no transportation for the poor? This is neglect,” Wright went on to say above the applause. It’s worth noting that the indigent population that Cooper Green serves was vastly underrepresented, perhaps due in part to the lack of public transportation that Wright mentioned.
One man, a self proclaimed full-time advocate for the homeless community who did not give a name, pointed out an issue that seems to have gone unchecked by the Jefferson County Commission and their decision to cut off the poor population from the healthcare they need. How do the poor get their much-needed prescription drugs?
“There is something no one wants to discuss — mental health. I suffer from these issues and I have a blue card, but they cut out the portion that covers mental healthcare. What are we supposed to do now? Now I have to get my medication off the street. I am a criminal,” the man said, pleading with the panel and the audience to heed his words. Many, just like this man, have turned to the streets for their prescriptions in the wake of Cooper Green’s cutbacks. Not a single one of the representatives from the Jefferson County Commission were in attendance to hear these plaints.
Dr. Steinmetz, who once served as a medical intern at Cooper Green, explained that for many years the system was working, but not as efficiently as it could have been. “Cooper Green is a very good place to train past medical school. But for many years the system has been dwindling down because the number of patients that were being hospitalized was down to about 100 a day, but Cooper Green was staffed for about 300 patients a day,” Steinmetz said. “The hospital itself was very overstaffed and consequently the cost of running the hospital was exorbitant.”
Overstaffing could have been one of the factors that went in to the JCC’s decision to close the hospital and cut back its funding, but there were no representatives present at the forum to answer any of these questions that the loud voices in attendance wanted answered.
As far as a solution, which this forum was billed to unveil, or at least hone in on, it would seem that there is much more debate to be had. The forum served as a place for frustrated voices to vent, but no solution was presented. The continuity of care for the patients who would normally be attending Cooper Green appears to have spilled over into other area hospitals, clogging the system and bogging it down for Birmingham as a whole. As one outspoken citizen in attendance yelled from the back, “This doesn’t just affect the poor — everybody bleeds.”