PHILADELPHIA – Overflow crowds are becoming commonplace in the battle to save historic Medical College of Pennsylvania Hospital since the announcement Dec. 18 by Tenet Healthcare Systems of its plans to close the facility. The hospital has been serving Philadelphians since 1850. Outrage over the proposed closing was fueled by the timing of Tenet’s announcement which came on the very day nurses were voting on a contract won following a difficult four-week strike.

MCP was the first medical school for women in the country.

Tenet, a for-profit corporation, claims MCP lost $20 million this year and cannot be profitable with 42 percent of its patients being on Medicare. Coming in the midst of the nurses’ strike to end forced overtime, the announcement adding MCP, with 1,000 employees, to the list of hospitals that Tenet has closed and sold, led to the formation of the Association to Save MCP. This organization of physicians, hospital workers, union leaders, politicians and concerned residents filed suit against Tenet seeking a permanent court injunction to stop the closing. The suit charged that Tenet violated the commitment it made to patients and hospital staff when it took over the hospital in 1998.

A judge granted an injunction at the end of December requiring that Tenet remain open with full services for at least 10 days. Over 100 people packed Judge Carafiello’s courtroom in City Hall Jan. 8 to hear arguments at the end of the 10 days. The Save MCP Coalition presented evidence proving that Tenet had violated the agreement by refusing to accept patients, moving equipment out of the hospital and refusing to rehire needed staff following the strike. The audience members, many of whom work in the hospital and have witnessed Tenet’s actions, gasped in response to the blatant lies of Tenet’s lawyers. Judge Carafiello ordered the injunction to stand until Feb. 19, when another hearing will take place.

In a neighborhood serviced by the hospital, a multiracial crowd of 500 overflowed the Devereaux Methodist Church the evening following the hearing in Judge Carafiello’s courtroom. City Councilman Michael Nutter said Tenet has received millions of dollars in tax breaks as well as cuts in gas bills. City Council hearings, he said, would determine whether Tenet broke its agreement with the city by attempting to close MCP after it received tax breaks to operate in Philadelphia.

“If you see one patient turned away, one piece of equipment moved, you let us know. We’re going to haul them into court,” said state Reps. Jewel Williams and Vincent Hughes. Statements of support have also come from Gov. Ed Rendell and Sen. Arlen Spector (R-Pa.), who has proposed federal assistance for the hospital.

On Dec. 30, hundreds rallied to save the hospital. Henry Nicholas, president of Hospital Workers Union 1199C, told that rally that Tenet “no longer wanted to take care of poor people.” Nancy Pickering, a cardiologist at MCP and a leader in the Save MCP coalition, said that shutting MCP would leave the community without a trauma center and critical emergency care. MCP is a Class 1 trauma center and the only bioterrorism decontamination center in the region. Dr. Pickering said that the hospital had been routinely transferring critically ill patients to other hospitals and threatened staff with termination notices effective Jan. 10. She said that some employees have been sent home early, leaving the hospital understaffed.

The author can be reached at Dennis Barnebey contributed to this story.