Four thousand dollars may be a pittance in the world of healthcare, but a lawsuit filed by a Providence, R.I.-based charity in November contends that Rhode Island Hospital's failure to honor the terms of a donation in that amount has denied needy patients access to free care for nearly a century.
The lawsuit, filed with the Rhode Island Superior Court by Children's Friend & Service, or CFS, says the donation by Louisa Lippitt in 1912 stipulated that the Providence facility set aside a perpetual free-care bed for needy patients referred by the charity. But the hospital took the money and never set aside the bed, the lawsuit alleges. “Our interpretation is that they are obligated to do what the (donation) certificate says,” says Mark Swirbalus, a CFS lawyer.
Rhode Island Hospital spokeswoman Gail Carvelli says, however, that the hospital honored the terms of the agreement for as long as it was valid. “What's at issue right now is whether Children's Friend & Service is the recipient of the gift,” she says, noting that the current charity didn't legally exist until 1949. Both CFS and the hospital acknowledged that Lippitt's original gift was made to Children's Friend Society, a predecessor organization to CFS founded in 1834, but CFS believes it remains the designated charity.
Also at issue, says Carvelli, is whether the gift obligates Rhode Island Hospital to provide physicians' services. The “Permanent Free Bed” certificate issued by the hospital to the charity on June 5, 1913, states that the organization had the right to send a patient “to occupy a bed ... and to receive the usual care, and medical, surgical and other attendance, and medicines and board free of charge.” But Carvelli said honoring that stipulation could be impossible under today's healthcare system. “Doctors nowadays bill for their services separately, and that's not necessarily how it was in 1912.”
Even if some hospital officials would be inclined to provide the free bed to CFS, doing so could potentially open the lid on a Pandora's box of long-ended donation practices. Apparently, the hospital issued certificates for 212 such perpetually free beds to a variety of contributors until 1923.
CFS learned of the donation in late 2004 when an administrative assistant found the donation certificate while digging through an archive. The organization estimates the $4,000 gift to be worth roughly $1.5 million today.