- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2008

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — When Louisa Lippitt died in 1912, the wealthy widow left $4,000 to Rhode Island Hospital on the condition the money be used to provide a permanent “free bed” for needy patients, to be selected by a favored charity.

A successor to the charity she selected rediscovered her bequest when it dusted off its archives, but the free bed is long gone. Now, Children’s Friend and Service is suing to get the health care back.

The hospital says it already provides millions of dollars in free care, but the charity said it needs to do more to fulfill the pledge it made to Mrs. Lippitt 96 years ago.

“It just seems illogical to me that a quote-unquote ‘permanent free bed,’ which by its very name suggests that it is to last forever, can somehow not last forever,” said Mark Swirbalus, a lawyer for the organization.

If it had been modestly invested, Mr. Swirbalus said, Mrs. Lippitt’s donation could be worth about $1.5 million today.

On Tuesday, a judge will hear arguments on the hospital’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Rhode Island Hospital was among many facilities, especially in the Northeast, that had “free-bed funds” through which donors could set aside a hospital bed for the poor.

In Rhode Island Hospital’s case and others, officials say interest from those funds continues to help cover health care costs for people who can’t afford them, though not through a specific hospital bed.

Hospital spokeswoman Gail Carvelli said the money donated for free beds was put into a restricted account that pays for charity care, but she could not say how much was in that account or how much of its funds are spent annually.

Mr. Swirbalus said Children’s Friend does not expect the hospital to set aside a bed that would be available only to the charity’s clients. Rather, the charity wants to ensure its clients receive free care in whatever bed they’re treated.

Ms. Carvelli said Rhode Island Hospital honored its commitment until the charity Mrs. Lippitt chose stopped nominating patients, though she was not clear when that occurred.

The 719-bed hospital also argues that Children’s Friend and Service does not have standing to sue because it did not even exist when Mrs. Lippitt died and is separate from the charity she named in her will, Children’s Friend Society of Providence. Children’s Friend and Service said it’s a successor of that group — technically called Providence Children’s Friend Society — and inherited its right to nominate patients when it formed in 1949.

David Caprio, executive director of Children’s Friend, said the group discovered paperwork on Mrs. Lippitt’s free bed while combing through its archives several years ago in preparation for its 175th anniversary.

“It was definitely curiosity. It quickly turned to excitement,” he said.

Little is known about Mrs. Lippitt. Court papers say the hospital was raising money at the time by offering permanent free medical beds in exchange for donations of $4,000 and that by 1923 there were 212 such beds.

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