March 10, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
Brooklyn, NY – On Sunday, March 9, union heads representing thousands of workers at SUNY Downstate Medical Center helped kick off a three-day interfaith fast on behalf of the threaten public institution – with one of those labor leaders calling directly upon Governor Andrew Cuomo to come to Brooklyn before the hunger strike ends.
“My call to action is for Governor Cuomo, with the chancellor of SUNY, to come here and tell the people of this community that they have heard the message, and they will do the right thing,” said Susan Kent, president of the Public Employees Federation [PEF].
Activists and advocates fighting for almost two years to preserve SUNY Downstate Medical Center as a full-service, public teaching hospital, want the state to allocate enough funding available through a multi-billion-dollar Medicaid waiver package, to keep the institution open – and abandoned further cutbacks and attempts at privatization.
“It took a long time to come, but we all believe in forgiveness,” Kent continued. “So, if they come, we will remember. And we will remember with an open and kind heart. But if they do not – we will remember that as well.”
SUNY Downstate – the fourth largest employer in the borough of Brooklyn – has already lost about a thousand staffers through a combination of layoffs and attrition. In addition to Kent, labor leaders from Unitied University Professions [UUP], American Federation of Teachers [AFT], Civil Service Employees Association [CSEA] and United Federation of Teachers [UFT] were on hand for the start of the interfaith fast.
UUP President Fred Kowal called the state cuts “unconscionable,” and said that SUNY hospitals, both in Brooklyn and Upstate, have been “cut to the bone.”
“We’re down about 50 percent in terms of state support for the public hospital here, and that’s unconscionable at a time when the governor is proposing further tax cuts for the wealthy and the banks,” Kowal told LaborPress.
SUNY Downstate has the distinction of graduating more New York City doctors than any other medical school in the country. At the same time, it graduates more doctors of color than any other medical school in the state.
“There is going to be a big fight in the coming weeks to get needed funding,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “There are many people who tell you that the medical school is fine. But medical schools do not work effectively without having a hospital as part of it. When someone tells you otherwise, they do not know medicine or healthcare.”
Public Advocate Letitia James said that it would be “devastating” for the governor to even consider shutting down SUNY Downstate – and that elected officials in Albany should instead explore “creative solutions to deploy more primary and ambulatory care into the community.”
“For far too long, we have not received our fair share of funding,” the public advocate continued. “And it’s now time that we get our fair share of funding. And as opposed to closing it down – you should build it up.”
Part of the problem, according to Karen Benker, MD, MPH, is that the funding formula used to reimburse hospitals for their Medicaid patients is weighted far too heavily in favor of large private hospitals.
“If somebody has an appendectomy at Columbia Presbyterian, it’s going to cost, let’s say, $2,000 from Medicaid,” Benker said. “That’s what they’re going to get. Here, it’s maybe $800. So, there’s this tremendous disparity.”
The interfaith group of religious leaders now holding their fast inside two vehicles parked in front of SUNY Downstate’s main entrance at 470 Clarkson Avenue, say they will not break their hunger strike until Tuesday, March 11, at 3 p.m.
In a statement, Pastor Gilford Monrose of Mt. Zion Church of God 7th Day said, “We stand shoulder to shoulder to protect our community that relies on SUNY Downstate for its well-being. The residents of Central Brooklyn must have Downstate remain a full-service, public hospital.”
New York City has lost 15 hospitals over the last 12 years. Both Interfaith Medical Center and Long Island College Hospital are also now in trouble, and in need of funding through the Medicaid waiver.
In calling on Governor Cuomo to come to Brooklyn, Kent stressed that all of the borough’s “safety net” hospitals need the chief executive’s attention.
“You don’t have show up physically to be here in spirit and to do the right thing,” said Kent. “So, I am confident that the pressure will be put on him to do the right thing and make sure that the $1.5 billion that we need out of $8 billion medicaid waiver will come here – and that before they finalize the state budget, safety net hospitals like SUNY Downstate will get their share.”