SCHENECTADY — Some 1,100 former employees of the defunct St. Clare’s Hospital are entering their fourth year without pensions and are seemingly no closer to a solution now than when they received their cutoff notices in October 2018.
A court struggle mounted by the pensioners continues to drag on, and even if they someday emerge victorious, it’s far from certain they’ll see the more than $50 million needed to make the pension fund whole.
Meanwhile, their efforts toward a legislated solution have gone nowhere.
Mary Hartshorne, a retired St. Clare’s sonographer leading the effort for relief, sent off a letter Thursday to the federal legislators representing the area seeking federal assistance along the same lines as the $86 billion federal bailout authorized this year for underfunded multiplayer pension funds for union members.
It’s essentially the same message state Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, sent to U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko and U.S. senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer, all of them members of the Democratic majority, back in March when the union pension bailout was placed in a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package.
Contacted by The Daily Gazette at the time, representatives of the three federal lawmakers did not address the idea of helping St. Clare’s pensioners, offering only vague messages of support for pensions and those who’ve earned them.
“That’s why I’m saying it — I want people to realize that these politicians simply don’t care,” Hartshorne said Thursday.
She’s also getting no more attention from New York’s new governor, Kathy Hochul, than she did from predecessor Andrew Cuomo, though not for lack of trying.
“I feel like a ping-pong ball being hit back and forth, and I don’t think the wonderful pensioners deserve this,” Hartshorne said. “Why are we not being at least given time to say what’s on our mind and ask for help?”
Tedisco, state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara and other local legislators have been continually supportive from the start, she said.
But apparently none are close enough to the decision-making process at the Capitol to be more than advocates.
The St. Clare’s Hospital pension fund went all but unfunded for at least a decade before the hospital was absorbed in 2008 into what is now Ellis Medicine. But years earlier, its trustees had used a loophole for church-affiliated organizations to drop out of the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty system. So when the fund became critically short of money in 2018, there was no safety net for about 1,100 people who were promised benefits.
Blame is often pointed in two directions: the state Department of Health and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.
The state ordered the financially troubled St. Clare’s to be merged out of existence and provided a pension bailout that proved to be far too small; this move, and the possibility that the state knew the bailout was too small, led to calls for the state to fund a second bailout.
The state and others say responsibility lies with the diocese, which was closely affiliated with the hospital before, during and after its 60-year run as Schenectady’s safety-net hospital, serving many under- and uninsured patients who lacked the means to pay their bills. But the diocese did not actually operate the hospital, and now maintains it is not responsible for the crisis and can’t afford to fix it.
This pattern of finger-pointing with no results — federal lawmakers saying they’ll talk to the governor’s office, the state and diocese denying responsibility, former pension administrators and the diocese resisting the pensioners in court — is what most frustrates Hartshorne.
“In the meantime, our people have suffered terribly. It’s been three years,” she said.