The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the world by storm in a matter of months. It has quickly exposed how vastly inadequate US society is when it comes to handling crises and keeping people safe. A society based on logic and care for human beings would swiftly implement policies to decrease the spread of the virus and increase our capacity to treat patients: retooling factories to make protective gear for healthcare workers, providing full pay for the unemployed, and immediately suspending rent and mortgage payments.

Another such policy is nationalizing hospitals, which has been done in both Spain and Ireland, allowing healthcare to be administered based on human need rather than on capitalists’ drive to increase profits. Similarly, New York’s Governor Cuomo just announced that all hospitals in the state will operate as one unified health system, “sharing staff, patients, and supplies” for the duration of the crisis (even while he forced a regressive austerity budget through the state legislature).

In Philadelphia Socialist Alternative is calling for the city to take the shuttered Hahnemann hospital into public ownership, permanently. The facility should be reoutfited to treat COVID-19 patients as soon as possible, and operated as a public hospital after the pandemic ends. The immediate need for more hospital beds due to the coronavirus crisis is clear, but is not the only reason for our demand: Philadelphia is the largest city in the nation without a public hospital.

We called for a public seizure of Hahnemann last summer when it was first being closed by Joel Freedman, its millionaire owner - a demand which many Hahnemann workers and patients supported. It was a safety-net hospital, serving some of the most vulnerable Philadelphians including uninsured patients and people experiencing homelessness. Running healthcare as a business means that an unprofitable hospital gets closed with no replacement, even if it is a vital resource for thousands. Hahnemann is only the most recent in a long list of hospital closures in Philly - there have been 20+ since 1977.

An Obvious Solution

The idea of reopening Hahnemann during this pandemic is intuitive. Healthcare workers recently demanded it at a demonstration outside the hospital, despite local stay-at-home orders. Hahnemann’s potential was even obvious to Mayor Kenney who was “in talks” with Freedman for a few days, ending negotiations after he demanded nearly $1,000,000 in monthly rent.

Instead, Temple University’s Liacouras Center, a sports complex and concert venue, will be used as an “overflow hospital”. The Philadelphia Inquirer released images of the space, showing hundreds of cots laid out across the gym floor, reminiscent of World War I military hospitals. Opening a “tent hospital” at 34th and Spruce St is also being discussed. Certainly Hahnemann needs some work, but where will patients receive higher quality care - in basketball stadiums and make-shift tent-hospitals, or a building that was designed to be a healthcare facility?

City Councilmember Helen Gym also called for the public seizure of Hahnemann, saying on Twitter that “eminent domain was created for situations like Hahnemann,” and garnering support from Bernie Sanders. The very next day however, she launched a petition directed at Freedman himself, rather than at Mayor Kenney, Governor Wolf, or anyone else who could actually initiate a public takeover.

It shouldn’t be up to Freedman. Working class people should not have to beg the rich for the resources we need to stay alive. The norm under capitalism is that each individual one-percenter gets to decide whether or not to be a good guy by donating money or resources, even during a life or death situation. This system is neither logical nor sustainable. Freedman’s personal quest for profit is not more important than thousands of sick Philadelphians’ right to decent healthcare.

How to Seize a Hospital

City and state governments have the legal authority to seize privately held property in various contexts. They do it all the time. Often though, it is not the property of millionaires, like Freedman, but working class people’s homes that are taken. We are the ones expected to sacrifice our property for the greater good (which frequently benefits the 1% and private developers most).

One of the most well-known methods of property seizure is eminent domain, the very mention of which tends to inspire intense debate about the logistical and legal details of the process. Sometimes these debates obscure the bigger picture. I didn’t want to miss the forest for the trees, so I spoke with retired attorney and former Assistant City Solicitor, Liz Mednick. She defined eminent domain as “the right of the government to take possession of a property for public use,” saying it can be applied in “cases of danger to the public, [or] for a public benefit.” Under eminent domain the government is required to fairly compensate the owner, with the exact details typically being hashed out in court.

However, according to Mednick, eminent domain is not the only path to a public takeover. She explained that governments have “the constitutional authority to adopt and enforce regulations and laws that promote public health, safety, and general welfare.” Adding that, “in emergencies, the Supreme Court has held that governments have a very broad mandate to enact necessary takings without compensation.”

The bottom line is that logistical complexities and a supposed lack of resources are not real barriers - in fact, there are multiple legal paths that the city or state could take to reopen Hahnemann if public health was truly their priority. But without massive public pressure, Mayor Kenney and Gov. Wolf are simply unwilling to stand up to a wealthy business owner, no matter how many lives are on the line.

Take Profit Out of Healthcare

Under capitalism, governments are servants of the profiteers. Initially reluctant to institute lockdown, Kenney said “we may be healthier but the economy will be in the tank.” Seizing Hahnemann would be a sign of hostility to a whole class of billionaire developers and investors, which is unfathomable to the Democratic Party establishment. Our task is to build a movement strong enough to override their reluctance. Historically, it is bold social movements, not the benevolence of politicians, that have been the driving force behind progressive change in society - whether it’s women’s suffrage, passing the New Deal, or overturning racist segregation laws.

Ultimately the situation is quite simple: there is an empty hospital and there are sick people. We should not allow one millionaire to hold our city and our health hostage. But capitalists will continue seeking to profit off our illness and let us die if their margins aren’t high enough, as long as we let them. The hospital takeovers in Europe and New York state are limited because they only hold for the duration of the pandemic. Our movement must go further.

There is no reason profiteers should be allowed back in to exploit vital public services when the pandemic ends. Crucial, life sustaining resources should be owned collectively and run in the best interest of everyone. We need permanent, democratic, public ownership of the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries. Only full nationalization, and continuing to move towards a socialist transformation of society, will protect us from the deadly nightmare of healthcare under capitalism.

Socialist Alternative is enthusiastic about working to build this movement with anyone else who shares these goals. When we fight, we win! #TakeOverHahnemann