St. Vincent Medical Center closes after a century, shocking community


St. Vincent Medical Center on January 21, 2020. Photo by Danielle Chiriguayo.

St. Vincent Medical Center, one of the oldest hospitals in Los Angeles, is permanently closing this week. This comes after a previous deal to purchase the property fell through. 

Its current owner, Verity Health System, filed for bankruptcy in 2018, and ultimately announced it would shutter the hospital on January 6. 

The announcement surprised the community surrounding the hospital, as well as staff and patients.

Donice Watkins has been treated at St. Vincent since the late 1970s. She says, “If I hadn't went [sic] in the cafeteria to eat between waiting for my doctor to come back from lunch, I wouldn't have known I hadn't heard anything on the news. So it is a shock. I've been coming here for a long time.”

She says she grew close to the medical staff during her time at the hospital: “I grew up with their staff, watching them have babies. And their kids now are in school. … It's like an extended family for me.”

Like patients and community members, employees at St. Vincent found out they were losing their jobs on January 6, including Christine Chung. 

“Everyday I'm waking up in the morning and thinking ... having just feelings of shock, disappointment, frustration, sadness, anger towards this Verity Care System that is taking away access to healthcare to all of these people in this community,” Chung says.  

She was a surgical nurse at St. Vincent for the last 13 years. Until recently, she lived nearby, and many of her family members were treated at the complex.

“Now I'm forced to go to unemployment that pays nothing. … I'm not going to have medical insurance next month for my two kids, my husband. How is that right?" she says.

Registered nurse Christine Chung at a public farewell ceremony on 3rd street on January 21. Photo by Danielle Chiriguayo.

Chung and other members of the California Nurses Association, the nurses union at St. Vincent, held a public farewell ceremony on January 21. It argues the closure of the hospital is illegal under state law.

St. Vincent’s legacy

St. Vincent sits in a lively and diverse part of central LA, full of Korean and Filipino families.

At the intersection of S. Alvarado St. and W. 3rd St., the complex occupies 10.4 acres, and has served the region for more than 150 years.

Most of its patients are low-income, elderly, or both.  

Two-thirds of the patients get Medicare (for people with disabilities or over age 65), and another quarter of the patients qualify for free or low-cost state health coverage. 

That means most of the hospital’s revenue comes from the government, which can make it tough to balance the books.

That problem isn’t unique to St. Vincent, according to George Greene of the Hospital Association of Southern California : “People often think that hospitals or corporations are well-funded and don't have economic issues. But when you're taking care of patients who are covered by Medicare and Medicaid, when you're working in low-income communities, it makes the business that much tougher.”

He says one-third of California hospitals currently operate in the red, like St Vincent: “When we look at the history of St. Vincent, there have been a succession of owners who have tried to do everything possible to keep those doors open. But ultimately, it's obvious that it was just no longer possible ... and it's really a reality that many of our hospitals across the state face.”

A new purpose for the building? 

KCRW reached out to the parent company of St Vincent Medical Center, Verity Health Systems, but the company did not respond. 

In a statement , the company said the closure comes only “after Verity explored every option to keep the facility open.” 

Though the hospital is now shuttered, the building may find a new life. This week, both the city and county of Los Angeles expressed interest in buying the hospital campus. The county tried purchasing the property in March 2019, and was unsuccessful in its bid. 

This week, County Supervisor Hilda Solis directed staff to try again. 

Their proposal? Turn the property into affordable housing for the homeless.