One of mid-Michigan’s largest health care providers is about to get smaller.
Sparrow Health Systems has announced it will close the emergency department at its St. Lawrence campus in Lansing on or after May 1. The company says it wants to eliminate duplicate services it offers less than two miles away. Sparrow is pledging to offset the shutdown by adding facilities at its main hospital.
The decision to close the St. Lawrence ER is worrisome for Sparrow patients and staff, as they brace for the impact it may have on their community.
Todd Heywood is a familiar name around Lansing. He’s an investigative journalist for the Lansing City Pulse, a former Lansing Community College trustee and a passionate activist for HIV awareness. Heywood is himself HIV positive, so taking meticulous care of his personal health is a must.
“What would normally be an average infection for most people could quickly turn into a massive infection for me,” Heywood says.
Heywood is well acquainted with the Sparrow St. Lawrence emergency department just a few blocks from his home. He has high praise for the team there. Heywood says he’s afforded a level of personal attention at St. Lawrence he can’t get elsewhere...and that’s crucial to someone with a compromised immune system.
“This is my go-to for emergency care,” he explains. “I’m troubled at the plans right now because the risk to my health being stuck in the middle of an emergency room with people who are sick is just...it’s extraordinary.”
Heywood is not the only one in Lansing with his eye on the Sparrow. Health professionals too are concerned with the hospital’s plan to shift emergency services to its main campus on Michigan Avenue, 1.8 miles away.
Jeff Breslin sees the distance as a hurdle for residents who rely on their proximity to St. Lawrence. He’s a registered nurse and president of the Sparrow Professional Employee Council at Sparrow, a division of the Michigan Nurses Association.
“Maybe they have a sick child during the middle of night, and if they don’t have a car, they don’t have public transportation because it doesn’t run all night,” Breslin asserts. “One-point-eight miles...that’s insurmountable.”
Breslin recognizes that in Lansing – and nationwide – many people seek treatment at local emergency departments even for what may be deemed routine care. Often that’s because they don’t have their own primary care physician. But Breslin doesn’t fault them for not having extensive medical training.
“To say, ‘you can’t come here because this is not a true emergency,’ is asking them to make decisions that they’re not qualified for,” says Breslin. “We’re the experts, and that’s why they come in to see us.”
Sparrow officials declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a written statement, the company says it will add 11 new treatment areas to the 62 existing beds in the ER at its main campus. Additionally, Sparrow plans to open a new 10-bed urgent care center across the street.
Sparrow emergency room nurse Leanne Heilig wonders if it will be enough.
“There’s many days that we are so full in the emergency department,” Heilig says. “Chairs are being occupied in the hallways, there’s stretchers in the hallways and there’s literally no place to put another patient, unless they want to sit on the floor. That’s not sanitary or safe for anybody.”
Heilig says management has told her and her colleagues that those 11 treatment centers will be specifically dedicated to mental health patients. Of those 11, she says, five will be actual rooms and six will be reclining chairs.
Sparrow’s plan to shut down the St. Lawrence ER is an unsettling proposition for many who live in Lansing’s Westside Neighborhood.
“Some people are outraged,” says Lansing Fourth Ward City Councilman Brian T. Jackson.
Jackson says he’s reached out to Sparrow to urge them to keep an open mind. He says he’s not aware of any past efforts by Sparrow to talk with the city to find some economic relief that might prevent the closure. He’d like to have those conversations.
“With a corporation the size of Sparrow, I hate to see that it’s a money decision,” he says. “We’re talking about people’s lives and health. So, hopefully we can stay at the table and possibly work something out.”
As Sparrow finalizes its plans, Councilman Jackson is soliciting community input. The St. Lawrence emergency department closure is at the top of his agenda for his next constituents’ meeting on February 24.
In the long term, Sparrow’s decision is certain to leave its mark on a health care landscape that’s set to change even more dramatically in the coming years. In December, Sparrow rival McLaren Health Care announced it will build a new 240-bed hospital near the Michigan State University campus. That project will eventually phase out McLaren’s two existing sites in Lansing.
Groundbreaking is expected later this year.