Marine Hospital - Free Healthcare For US Mariners?

I’m reading Mathews Men and it mentions one of the captains dying decades later in a ‘Marine Hospital’ in Staten Island. Apparently the hospital covered all his cancer bills and provided free health and dental care to all mariners.

Free health care for all mariners!? Sounds too good to be true… did this place really exist?? Why haven’t I heard of the before?

Yes they existed but over the years morphed into US Public Health Services Hospitals to service a wider community. They were closed in 1981 under Reagan.

I remember being sent to one while on a ship to get something out of my eye. It may have been the one in Staten Island.

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Really? We’ve discussed them on here multiple times in the past…

They were the places to go for your shots too. Also on Staten Island was Sailors Snug Harbor old age home for merchant seamen.

If by “discuss”, you mean a rant by one of our more esteemed members then… no, I don’t read all those :wink:

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I knew about snug harbor but free healthcare and dental I didn’t know about.

From a NYTimes article about the closing of that hospital. “The administration claims that seamen will now receive hospital and dental care through maritime unions.”

Yeah right! That’s why I left AMO… they they totally dropped dental and the medical coverage wasn’t great.

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I did find out recently that, because my wife was a second mate during the Operation Iraqi Freedom, we do qualify to be buried together in a national cemetery free of charge… but only if she dies before me :flushed:

I remember going to the Marine Hospitals. It was free, but the quality of care was very low. The only ones I saw were more like walk-in clinics, not really hospitals. President Reagan did indeed close them. No one tried to keep them open, especially not the unions.


That can be arranged. You just need to watch more Investigation Discovery. . . .

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I remember visiting the Public Health facility in NYC, on Houston Street, if I remember correctly. Was injured in a fall on a ship in the English Channel and put ashore. Eventually I was flown back and went to Public Health to get my stitches removed and a Fit For Duty. Rejoined the ship in Port Elizabeth the next day.

Here is a bit more.

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It existed, until Reagan got rid of it circa 1981. By then, its purpose and eligibility had expanded, and the care was somewhat lacking. I spent over 8 hours in triage with a broken ankle waiting for “emergency” treatment at the USPS hospital in Staten Island.

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Amazon’s headquarters on Beacon Hill in Seattle used to be the Mariner’s Hospital.


IIRC, they moved everything from Snag Harbor on Staten Island (what is now prime real estate) down to either North or South Carolina before it was closed.

Yes and snug harbor still does provide money and a few services to destitute mariners in old age but it’s a shell of its former self:


Well, next time you’re in the neighborhood tell Jeff Bezos that we want it back! :wink:

There was a very large US Public Health Service Hospital in Norfolk, VA on Hampton Blvd, just south of Lafayette River bridge. Not far from NIT and N&W Coal Piers. Served merchant mariners primarily, with USN on a space available basis. Got my vasectomy there in late 1976, as the waiting time at Portsmouth Naval Hospital was almost a year.

Large facility can still be seen on Google Earth, but now used by Naval Facilities Engineering Command

In the '70s, I had 2 dealings with the Galveston marine hospital system and 2 after it was rolled into the public health hospital system. The first visit was to get a tooth filled. After waiting all day to be seen, they declined a filling and wanted to pull it. I had it filled the next day at my local dentist. The other 3 times, after waiting 4 to 8 hours to be seen, I opted for private health care. The last was a severe sprain of my left ankle on Christmas day in Galveston. After 4 hours waiting, I took a cab to John Sealy hospital where they had to cut my boot off. Luckily, nothing broken but I was still laid up for a month.


In 1968-70, I served 2 years as a US Public Health Service commissioned officer, stationed at the US Marine Hospital in Galveston. Like all medical graduates of that era, I had a draft obligation to fulfill and was very happy to get the USPHS commission as it satisfied my draft board…as long as I served with the Marine Hospital Service. I had originally gotten interested in a PHS commission while in medical school as I wanted to be a Peace Corps staff physician (take care of volunteers) and “see the world.” But when Vietnam heated up, political pressure dictated that a restricted list of job choices had to be offered to incoming officers with a draft obligation, so I ended up in the Marine Hospital Service branch of the PHS for 2 years.

My observation was that, at least in that era, the PHS was generally attracting a pretty high caliber of physician. ALL male medical school graduates HAD to serve 2 years in SOME military or PHS position in that time, and of the available choices, the PHS was quite an attractive one. I felt very fortunate to be able to get in. The biggest obstacle to the quality of care, however, was a chronic budgetary shortage…I think the government was angling toward trying to get out from under its obligation even then…and the physical facilities and equipment we had to work with were, to put it gently, “challenged.” Most of the Marine Hospitals dated from the very early 20th Century (or earlier) and were woefully out of date. Most of our ward facilities were old fashioned “open wards” which was pretty antiquated even in the '60’s.

We were busy though! As I recall, just about anyone with a Z card was eligible for free care. There were some restrictions if it had been too many days since one had been “under articles,” but for the most part we provided comprehensive care to Merchant Mariners whether taken ill at sea or ashore. My recall is a bit shaky about the details of this, but we did have a clientele of “retired” merchant mariners who hadn’t sailed in a long time. I seem to recall that that magic qualifier was that IF you’d been declared Permanently NFFSD (not fit for sea duty) and the reason had ANY connection to your maritime service, then you could be labelled PNFFSD & Eligible For Chronic Care (for everything, not just your service connected problem). Something like that. I know I had a lot of old timers in my office practice when I worked the outpatient clinic at Galveston and some of them hadn’t been to sea for a long time.

One other little known service we provided to the Merchant Marine (of other nations as well), was a radio medical advisory service to ships at sea. Our OD was responsible for fielding calls from the Coast Guard, and also occasionally from Mackey Radio (who had a station on the Texas Gulf Coast) who wanted to patch us into a radio-telephone call from a vessel as sea whose (usually) skipper wanted advice on how to handle some sickness or injury in a crew member. Our Hospital Director when I was at Galveston was also the author of the USPHS published book: “The Ship’s Medicine Chest & Medical Care At Sea,” which I think used to be in the skipper’s library on a lot of vessels.

I don’t recall exactly how they were qualified, but licensed commercial fishermen were included in our eligible list at that time as well. I THINK perhaps that was a relatively new extension of the benefit. But I know we had a lot of Gulf Shrimpers, who, in those days, were mostly Cajuns…that industry to later be taken over by Asian immigrants for the most part. We also took care of a lot of military personnel in the outpatient clinic. Rarely, we’d have military people hospitalized, but only on an emergency basis usually as they’d get transferred to their own nearest service hospital (in San Antonio or Corpus Christi). Coast Guardsman, however, were a primary responsibility for us for all care.

The USPHS essentially served as a medical corps for the Coast Guard and had commissioned officers assigned directly to some CG facilities and vessels on offshore duty. PHS officers also served on NOAA ships when away from the US. Our pool of 2 yr. Gnl. Medical Officers at Galveston always had 1 or 2 guys away on rotation to a CG or NOAA cruise. At Galveston, we had Coast Guard sick-call 6 mornings a week, year-round. USCG Base Galveston was a pretty sizable base at that time with two 210’ Med. Endurance Cutters and two Bouy Tenders stationed there full time.

The Marine Hospital Service has a very long history and was actually created in 1798. It was essentially the nucleus around which the USPHS as we know it today was formed. At one time MOST of the major seaports of the US (including the inland port of Louisville, KY) had large, busy Marine Hospitals. You can look up the history if you’re interested. The original funding basis was that it was funded by an insurance scheme where all merchant mariners contributed out of their pay. As I recall it was supposedly the first health insurance scheme, public or private, known in the United States.


I have seen this book on many vessels and have used it myself as a reference when sailing as ships medical officer. It is still held in high regard.

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