LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
Shriners Hospitals treat children with the most serious medical conditions, but like many non-profits, their endowment has lost billions. That may lead Shriners to make two difficult decisions: close some hospitals and stop providing free care to all patients. From member station WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut, Lucy Nalpathanchil has more.
LUCY NALPATHANCHIL: When you hear the name Shriners, it may spark childhood memories of attending the Shrine Circus or seeing dozens of men in red fezzes zipping around in little cars at local parades.
Shriner Al Zippin.
Mr. AL ZIPPIN (Chairman Emeritus, Board of the Governors, Shriners Hospital): People look at us and say, well, you're the Shriners, you always have fun. And my answer is you bet your life we have fun, because guess what we're here for? Why do we exist? For the hospitals. So while we have fun, children benefit.
NALPATHANCHIL: That's because all that fun raises money to support a large hospital network. The first hospital opened in 1922 to care for children with polio. This focus helped Shriners develop a specialty in pediatric orthopedics. And since the beginning, children, no matter the income of their families, have been cared for free of charge.
Shriners Hospitals President and CEO Ralph Semb.
Mr. RALPH SEMB (President and CEO, Shriners Hospitals): We take care of these children. It's total family care. I mean, if a child comes in from 800 miles away, obviously you don't sit them outside the door, you keep him in the hospital.
NALPATHANCHIL: But the Shriners Hospital endowment has lost $3 billion in the recession. Semb says it's time to change the model.
Mr. SEMB: Today we're taking care of children that do have insurance and we don't take that insurance.
NALPATHANCHIL: Semb says the Shriners will never turn children away, but may be forced to take private insurance from families that have it. Even if it does, Shriners could shutdown half a dozen hospitals.
Ms. ADYTA PETERS: We just hope they don't close.
Ms. VASHNIL PETERS: I know.
Ms. PETERS: Kind of sad. It'd be a shame.
NALPATHANCHIL: Aydita Peters(ph) is at Shriners Hospital in Springfield, Massachusetts - one of the hospitals slated to close. She and her daughter Vashnil(ph) are waiting for an X-ray. Vashnil suffers from Blount Disease, a rare condition that causes bowing of the legs. The Peters are from St. Thomas, the U.S. Virginia Islands. But they've been living in a Ronald McDonald House in Massachusetts since last November, as Vashnil waits for her fourth surgery. Her mother says the care they've received at Shriners is something they could never have afforded if they had gone to a doctor closer to home.
Ms. PETERS: To do the surgery in Puerto Rico, his fee and his fee alone is 60,000, and that don't include no physical therapy, hospital, anesthesia, antibiotics, nothing. Just his fee.
NALPATHANCHIL: News of the hospital system's financial troubles has galvanized local communities to raise money, particularly in the towns that may lose their Shriners Hospital. In Massachusetts, a local Web site was created to gather family testimonials and to list dozens of charity events in the Springfield area.
Unidentified Woman: Go ahead and wash it.
Unidentified Man: Watch out.
NALPATHANCHIL: On a recent Saturday in nearby Chicopee, 9th grader Samantha Tefft organized a carwash to benefit Shriners.
Ms. SAMANTHA TEFFT: They take kids that can't afford to be in any other hospital and they need more help than most people do.
NALPATHANCHIL: Besides Springfield, Children's Hospitals in Erie, Pennsylvania, Greenville, South Carolina, Spokane, Washington and Shreveport, Louisiana, as well as a hospital in Galveston, Texas, are on the closure list. The hospitals' fates will be decided the week of July 6th when the Shriners vote at their annual convention.
For NPR News, I'm Lucy Nalpathanchil in Hartford.