How the owner of Philly’s shuttered Hahnemann hospital became the internet’s coronavirus villain
It’s a widespread campaign to shame Joel Freedman, who owns an empty building that it’s not even clear could have been used in time to respond to the surge of COVID-19 patients.
Katherine Fritz first came across Joel Freedman’s name last week on Twitter. She Googled him, and found an October article about Freedman’s $3.5 million Rittenhouse Square home, which he was selling after he had announced the closure of the former Hahnemann University Hospital, which he owns.
Fritz read more — how Philadelphia tried to lease the former hospital as the coronavirus pandemic spread, and how Freedman offered it for nearly $1 million a month. Fritz was appalled, and dashed off a few tweets about Hahnemann, juxtaposing it with photos of the interior of Freedman’s home. It was shared thousands of times.
Fritz’s posts were among thousands in a social media firestorm that grew since Mayor Jim Kenney accused Freedman of “trying to make a buck” off the coronavirus pandemic while negotiating over the use of the ex-hospital, which once held about 500 beds on North Broad Street.
For his detractors, Freedman is now the villain of the coronavirus crisis and a symbol, particularly among the left, of the perils of intersecting private equity with health care. His portrait has been doctored by meme creators all over Instagram. His Philadelphia house has been egged and graffitied with phrases like Joel Kills, and a dozen lawyers offered to represent pro-bono anyone charged in connection with the vandalism.
“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that if I had an empty hospital, I would open the doors,” Fritz, 34, of South Philly, said. “That moral calculus seems so obvious to me. But, I suppose, I would never have an empty hospital in the first place.”
Freedman has been excoriated by comedians and opinion writers and Bernie Sanders; called shameful by members of Congress and a former labor secretary. Protesters stood outside the ex-hospital donning face masks and holding signs that read: “Tell Joel Freedman Stop Hoarding Hospitals."
It’s a widespread campaign to shame a man who owns an empty building that it’s not even clear could have been used in time to respond to the surge of COVID-19 patients expected in Philadelphia and the surrounding region. Other hospitals are preparing for the influx, but city and state officials said Hahnemann — which has been gutted and without beds for months — would have needed extensive work just to be used as quarantine space, and it likely would not have been used as a functioning hospital.
Freedman’s team has said he has been unfairly maligned and offered the city a “reasonable, heartfelt offer.”
After considering seizing the building using eminent domain, Kenney and his team turned elsewhere for hospital overflow space, agreeing with Temple University to convert its basketball arena. But those who want to see Hahnemann reopened for COVID-19 patients and beyond have not ended their campaign and believe the city or state must seize the building.
“It would be well worth it,” said Jed Laucharoen, an organizer with the Philadelphia branch of Socialist Alternative, “and set an important precedent for working people vs. the people who are trying to run away with basically blood money.”
Freedman did not respond to requests for an interview. City spokesperson Mike Dunn said that some of the reaction to the city’s ending negotiations with Freedman has been inappropriate and that “threatening people and defacing property is never OK."
An empty hospital in Philadelphia
Freedman is chief executive and founder of Paladin Healthcare, a California investment firm, which created American Academic Health System LLC in 2018 to purchase both the former Hahnemann University Hospital and St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children for $170 million. The purchase was made in partnership with a Chicago real estate firm, which led to speculation that real estate development could be in the future for the properties.
The hospitals were bleeding cash, which continued into spring 2019, when Hahnemann announced layoffs and said its monthly losses were in the millions. A closure plan was put in place, American Academic Health System filed for bankruptcy, and the hospital was shuttered by September.
Hahnemann had long served some of the city’s poorest residents, and its closure first angered politicians who lamented lost jobs, residency positions, and care. In July, the issue went national when Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders rallied with about 1,500 residents and workers in front of the hospital, saying, “How many people will in fact die if this hospital is shut down?"
Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator and national cochair of Sanders’ presidential campaign, said Freedman’s handling of Hahnemann amid the coronavirus amounts to “predatory greed.”
“If a pandemic can’t move [Freedman], I don’t know frankly what will,” Turner said.
Philadelphia officials first reached out to Freedman in mid-March as they were mulling the possibility of using the former hospital as the medical community braced for a surge of patients.
Freedman spokesperson Sam Singer told The Inquirer that Freedman offered to sell the property below market rate or rent the facility at $60 per bed per day, totaling about $910,000 a month, which he called a “hugely, deeply, discounted rate compared to other known comparable situations.” He noted California is paying $2.6 million per month to rent a closed, smaller hospital during the pandemic.
Kenney said the city has no need to buy the property and offered to pay Freedman a “nominal” lease price and cover the cost of maintenance and repairs. He said Freedman wouldn’t agree.
City Councilmember Helen Gym, a vocal opponent of the hospital closure, called on the city to use eminent domain or to temporarily seize the property. Kenney said the city looked into eminent domain, but concluded it would be too time-consuming and would have likely required the city to purchase the property.
“That building would be in use but for [Freedman’s] demand to profit from this deal as much as possible while we’re in the midst of a global health crisis,” Gym said. “I think that building being vacant right now as we face this is a complete symbol of what has gone wrong in the American health-care system and private equity.”
Laucharoen, of Socialist Alternative, agreed — Freedman has become a national symbol of a bigger problem.
“It’s him and his entire class that have prioritized profit-making over human need,” he said.
The campaign marches on
Dunn affirmed Friday the city is not considering eminent domain or seizure. But the pressure campaign continues. The group Philly Socialists on Thursday hung banners that can be seen from I-676 in Philadelphia that read: “Seize Hahnemann, Free Healthcare” and “Millionaires Hoard Hospitals, How Many Will Die?”
“We have this facility that has the layout and infrastructure to serve as a hospital,” said Kaitlin Buck, the group’s director of communications.
Added Clarissa O’Conor, of Put People First! PA, the group that protested outside the hospital this week: “We can’t rely on just hoping for the goodwill of these venture capitalists. We’re definitely asking the people who are supposed to represent us to do the right thing.”
And the story of the saga still reverberates on social media. It’s even reached a different Joel Freedman, also a businessman in the Los Angeles area, but not a hospital investor.
The wrong Joel Freedman has also been targeted by angry commenters on Facebook and Twitter, including strangers wishing for his “slow and painful death.” It’s made the last week among the worst of his life.
“In normal times it would be bad to have a social media attack on you," he said, "but having it occur during a global pandemic was particularly difficult.”