Shriners Hospitals treat children with the most serious medical conditions. But like many non-profits, their endowment has lost billions and that may lead Shriners to make two difficult decisions: to close hospitals and to stop providing free care to all patients.
When you hear the name Shriners, it may spark childhood memories of attending the Shrine Circus or seeing dozens of men in red fezs zipping around in little cars at local parades.
Shriner, Al Zippin:
"People look and say, well you're the Shriners, you always have fun. 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."
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.
"We take care of these children, it's total family care. If a child comes in from 800 miles away you don't ship them out the door, you keep them inside the hospital."
But the Shriners hospital endowment has lost $3 billion dollars in the recession. Semb says it's time to change the model.
"Today we're taking care of children that do have insurance. And we don't take that insurance."
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 shut down half a dozen hospitals.
"I just hope they don't close because it'd be a shame."
Idita Peters is at Shriners Hospital in Springfield, Massachusetts, one of the hospitals slated to close. She and her daughter Veshniel are waiting for an x-ray. Veshniel suffers from Blount Disease, a rare condition that causes bowing of the legs. The Peters are from St Thomas, the U.S. Virgin Islands but they've been living in a Ronald McDonald house in Massachusetts since last November as Veshniel 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.
"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."
News of the hospital systems' financial troubles has galvanized local communities to raise money, particularly in the towns that may lose their Shriners hospital. In Massachusetts, a local website was created to gather family testimonials and to list dozens of charity events in the Springfield area.
On a recent Saturday in nearby Chicopee, 9th grader, Samantha Tefft organized a car wash to benefit Shriners.
"They take kids that can't afford to be in any other hospital and they need more help than most people do."
Besides Springfield, children's hospitals in Erie, PA, Greenville, SC, Spokane, WA, and Shreveport,LA are on the closure list as well as a hospital in Galveston Texas which hasn't reopened since damage from Hurricane Ike. The hospitals' fates will be decided the week of July 6 when the Shriners vote at their annual convention.