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The owner of Hahnemann hospital says he’s not the coronavirus villain you think he is

Mayor Jim Kenney accused the California businessman of “trying to make a buck” out of the pandemic with his offer to lease the building to the city.

A jogger passes the vandalized home belonging to Joel Freedman.
A jogger passes the vandalized home belonging to Joel Freedman.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

For Philadelphia activists looking for a villain, Joel Freedman fits the profile.

The private equity owner of the Hahnemann University Hospital building drew an angry Bernie Sanders to the City of Brotherly Love after the safety-net hospital filed for bankruptcy last July.

But by March, when city officials and the California businessman started talking about using the shuttered facility for Philadelphia’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic, the outrage and vitriol aimed at Freedman over the hospital closure had died down.

Then Freedman offered the hospital for rent at $410,000 per month — plus $400,000 to $500,000 in building operating expenses. Mayor Jim Kenney, who didn’t like the offer, accused Freeman of “trying to make a buck” out of the pandemic, even as city officials say they knew early on that the building was not suitable for overflow hospital beds in the event of a surge in critically ill COVID-19 patients.

Freedman, who has barely spoken to the media in over a year, told The Inquirer in an interview that he would have lost $600,000 a month if the city had taken his offer. And with $100 million in debt secured by the Hahnemann property, he said, he did not have a lot of flexibility in what he could do with the facility.

What came after the Kenney blast in late March was terrifying to Freedman and his family, he said. “It was far more intense this time than it was last year, because people are scared. We’ve had literally hundreds of threats. It’s been remarkably intense.”

» READ MORE: How the owner of Philly’s shuttered Hahnemann hospital became the internet’s coronavirus villain

Vandals defaced the house on the 2100 block of Locust Street where he had lived with his family until shortly after the bankruptcies of Hahnemann and St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children last June. Spray-painted letters spelled out “Joel Kills” and “Free Hahnemann” in capital letters.

A Twitter search for #joelfreedman turns up an image of a guillotine accompanied by the words, “Let him eat steel.”

For Freedman, it was hard to take.

“Until we get the property sold, we’re going to burn a million-plus a month,” he said. Those costs include the $400,000 to $500,000 for things like utilities, maintenance, insurance, and taxes.

Additional carrying costs include more than $300,000 a month in interest on the loan and a similar amount for legacy pension contributions, Freedman said. The debt, and lenders’ rights, likely would have prevented him from giving the property away even if he wanted to.

The fundamental issue was that city was unwilling to pay rent, Managing Director Brian Abernathy said Friday. At most, it was willing to negotiate over utilities, he said.

“Joel wanted to make sure he covered his costs," Abernathy said. "I don’t think we were in a position to pay rent for the facility, and on top of that pay a few hundred thousand to prepare the facility to be occupied.”

» ASK US: Do you have a question about the coronavirus and how it affects your health, work and life? Ask our reporters.

“This was never going to be a hospital space," he added. "It wasn’t equipped to be a hospital space. There’s no beds inside it. It wasn’t suited for a surge facility. Our initial exploration was quickly shifted from a surge facility to a quarantine or isolation space.”

By the time Freedman offered the facility rent-free, the city had moved on, Abernathy said.

Its unclear how long it would have taken to reopen Hahnemann, which had been licensed for 496 beds. It had the advantage of having rooms with oxygen hook-ups, but virtually all of the equipment, including beds, had been sold to help pay off bankruptcy debts. Elevators weren’t working.

The details didn’t matter for those targeting Freedman on social media.

“I think the abuse that he took was completely undeserved," Abernathy said. "I know the mayor feels strongly that he was trying to make a buck. That is what it is. I think the mayor still feels that way. That doesn’t change the fact that the abuse the guy took was completely uncalled for.”

The Kenney administration, which was under pressure from Councilmember Helen Gym to seize Hahnemann through eminent domain, ended negotiations with Freedman on March 26.

» READ MORE: Mayor Kenney accuses Hahnemann owner of ‘trying to make a buck’ on the coronavirus

By the end of the month, Temple University’s Liacouras Center was lined with 200 cots for overflow patients from Philadelphia hospitals. The center did not accept its first patient until April 20, and 10 days later officials started winding down operations there, as stay-at-home orders helped prevent a surge of patients in the city’s hospitals.

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley first disclosed on March 11 that the city was exploring ways to use Hahnemann as it grappled with how to expand the city’s hospital capacity. Freedman said he expected the city to make a proposal after officials toured the site. Instead, it asked him to make an offer — which he did about 6 p.m. March 23.

The next day, at the daily city news conference, Kenney criticized Freedman, who bought Hahnemann and St. Christopher’s in January 2018 for $170 million, using mostly borrowed money.

“We have the owner of the Hahnemann hospital jacking up monthly prices,” Kenney said, calling it sad that “people will take advantage" and try “to make a buck out of this.”

Kenney kept it up on NPR on March 29, accusing Freedman of being a “multimillionaire owner who wanted to maximize his profits.”

Other governments are paying to temporarily use shuttered hospitals. California agreed to pay $236 per night per bed, for a total of $2.6 million each month, to use the 366-bed St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles — which, like Hahnemann, closed during a bankruptcy. Illinois agreed to lease the former Sherman Hospital in Elgin for $291,667, or $43 per bed per night, according to Freedman’s attorneys.

Freedman’s Hahnemann offer of $414,000 a month worked out to about $27 per bed per night. It’s not clear if the hospitals in other states still had beds, or what condition those hospitals are in.

Why didn’t Freedman speak out sooner to defend himself?

“Because I have been nervous about getting into a tit-for-tat with people in high places,” he said. “It got so intense this time that I just felt something needed to be said.”