As home to some of the best medical schools, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies in the country, Philadelphians feel strongly about their city’s role in health care. And rightly so. The health care industry has consistently been essential to the ways Philadelphians work, live, thrive, and survive. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Temple University Hospital, Albert Einstein Medical Center, Independence Blue Cross, Presbyterian Medical Center, and Pennsylvania Hospital are all listed among the city’s top 20 employers.
These developments stand out as Philadelphia’s top health care news stories in 2019.
1. Hospitals: Hahnemann closes abruptly
In June, Philadelphia Academic Health System, the owner of Hahnemann Hospital, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and announced that it would close the 171-year-old Drexel-affiliated teaching hospital. News of the closure sent shockwaves through the city and attracted national attention, even drawing presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to a protest rally. Hahnemann closed its doors in September, changing the trajectories of hundreds of patients, residents, and employees and placing new burdens on nearby Philadelphia hospitals and health systems.
St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, the other major hospital owned by Philadelphia Academic Health System, saw a more favorable fate. In September, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Gross approved its purchase for $50 million by a partnership between Reading-based Tower Health and Drexel University. The full impact of the bankruptcy on healthcare in the region – and the dismantling of Hahnemann’s residency program -- will continue to unfold in 2020.
2. Opioid crisis: Supervised injection site upheld
Although the opioid crisis is nothing new for Philadelphia, in 2019 the discussion ramped up surrounding a proposed supervised injection site in Kensington, the neighborhood hit hardest by the epidemic. In October, U.S. District Judge Gerald A. McHugh ruled that Philadelphia-based nonprofit Safehouse’s plan to open the site would not violate the federal Controlled Substances Act. The decision will allow for the nation’s first legally[SC2] sanctioned supervised injection site to be launched in response to the opioid epidemic. Advocates of supervised injection sites – where people in addiction can use their drugs under medical supervision, be revived if they overdose, and get referrals to treatment programs and other resources -- have argued that they will help reduce overdoses. Once it is in operation, Safehouse will be able to provide significant data on how the program actually works for Philadelphia.
3. Pharma: Roche Acquires Spark Therapeutics
Philadelphia’s already-large footprint in the pharmaceutical industry got deeper when Swiss pharmaceutical and diagnostics company Roche Group acquired Philadelphia-based Spark Therapeutics, Inc. in February. Based on both Roche’s and Spark’s heavy involvement in gene therapy, the acquisition underwent extensive regulatory review for potential antitrust concerns from both the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in the United Kingdom and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the United. By December, both authorities had cleared the acquisition, which has since been finalized.
4. Immigrant care: Jefferson Announces Wellness Center
Throughout 2019, Philadelphia affirmed and strengthened its status as a sanctuary city where refugees can get the health care they need Shortly after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld a 2018 ruling that it was unlawful to withhold federal funds based on Philadelphia’s sanctuary city status, Jefferson University Hospital announced plans to open a community wellness center dedicated to serving immigrant and refugee patients. The $5 million Hansjörg Wyss Wellness Center, set to open in early 2020 in South Philadelphia’s Bok Building, will be the hub of Jefferson’s clinical and educational outreach activities for the area and will provide services to community members regardless of health insurance or citizenship status.
5. Vaping crisis: City Council enacts sales restrictions
In 2019, questions about the safety of e-cigarettes and vaping intensified with reports of hospitalizations and even deaths. In December, in response to both national and local increases in the use of e-cigarettes and vaping products by teenagers, City Council passed a ban on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes in any store open to minors. The ban prevents store owners who choose to sell flavored e-cigarettes from allowing anyone under the age of 18 to enter their establishment. Stores that opt to sell the products will be issued an “Adults-Only Establishment” license from the Department of Public Health. Offenders will be subject to a first-time fine of $250, and any repeat offender who is caught more than twice over a two-year period can lose its “Adults-Only Establishment” license.
Mara Smith is an Associate General Counsel for Brighton Health Plan Solutions, LLC, a third-party administrator and health plan management innovator operating on the East Coast.