January 9, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco
Can you hear us now?
After spending much of 2012 pounding the pavement outside of SUNY Downstate Medical Center to fight a planned restructuring that could devastate the Central Brooklyn institution, a broad coalition of unions, community and religious organizations took their struggle all the way to Albany on January 8.
"I think that message is going to be heard," Professional Employees Federation (PEF) President Susan Kent told LaborPress. "Whether or not we will be able to overcome the lack of concern that apparently the Division of Budget has about infusing the money that's needed to make Downstate stable after this merger with LICH and Victory, I don't know. That's in the hands of the governor and the people he has hired."
SUNY Downstate Medical Center has already experienced hundreds of layoffs and faces an even bleaker future despite its status as an incubator of incredible medical advancement and unparalleled source of care for hundreds of thousands – as well as being an economic powerhouse for the borough.
The SUNY Downstate Board of Trustees is next expected to meet and discuss so-called "restructuring" plans within a couple of weeks. In the meantime, labor groups representing hospital staffers are calling on Deputy Secretary for Health Jim Introne to sit down for a candid discussion about how to remedy financial problems they say have been caused by hospital mismanagement.
Up until now, however, there hasn't been any indication that the months of vocal protesting has in anyway influenced plans to radically transform SUNY Downstate.
"No," Kent said. "I can't honestly say that we have gotten any positive feedback to date from the Governor's Office and the second floor. Or the SUNY Board of Trustees for that matter, who are really in between a rock and a hard place because they are responsible for the mismanagement. They are being held responsible for it by the governor and the second floor by not being given the financial assistance that they need."
Hundreds SUNY Downstate supporters rallied at the Legislative Office Building in Albany on January 8. Eight buses bound for the New York State Capital and carrying United University Professions (UUP) and PEF members, as well as a cadre of others hoping to gain support and to speak to legislators, left from 395 Lenox Road at 7 a.m.
"Saving vital health care services and jobs at SUNY Downstate has become a community effort," UUP Chapter President Rowena Blackman-Stroud said. "Brooklyn's faith-based leaders, labor leaders and community members are working together to save the jobs of hundreds of dedicated caregivers, who provide life-saving health care to thousands of patients each day."
Many view the drive to "restructure" SUNY Downstate Medical Center as just another attempt at privatizing the public sector.
"What's happening at SUNY Downstate is a thinly veiled attempt to privatize this public hospital, which provides necessary health care services to hundreds of thousands of patients," UUP President Phillip H. Smith said. "If it can happen to Downstate, it can happen to state-operated hospitals across the state. We need to stop this in its tracks."
New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento said that the state has an obligation to take care of those who cannot afford quality health care.
"That is why we have public health care," Cilento said. "What's happening at Downstate is just the latest example of the troubling movement away from public hospitals and nursing homes. We cannot in good conscience turn our back on the 400,000 people in Brooklyn who rely on Downstate each year and the dedicated professionals that provide their care."
For coalition members, the devastation that Hurricane Sandy visited upon the Tri-State area in November, only highlights the need for an effective public healthcare system.
"As we witnessed during Superstorm Sandy, Downstate Medical Center very literally provides a lifeline to those in need of critical health services," NYSUT President Richard C. Iannuzzi said. "Our most vulnerable citizens depend on the high-quality care that Downstate provides. The closure of this hospital would only aggravate our economic difficulties by putting several hundred dedicated and professional public employees out of work. Given that Downstate also educates some 1,600 medical students annually, its closure would jeopardize the future of New York's health-care system. We urge the Legislature not only to disregard this short-sighted plan, but to also adequately fund Downstate to ensure delivery of the excellent and cutting-edge care for which it is so well known."
Whether or not their actions will spur Governor Andrew Cuomo to help preserve SUNY Downstate as a public institution, Kent said that the Albany rally is nevertheless part of a new kind of re-energized labor advocacy that will continue.
"I think today is going to be a very good start for a way to do things differently," said Kent. "This was really a grassroots coalition that was born in Brooklyn from the people that are going to be impacted by this. Faith based groups, community groups and unions is really going to be very effective in delivering the message that the old way of doing business is not being entertained anymore. And that the unions and the people that are being impacted are going to come together and we are going to stand together to try to do whatever we need to do to get our message out for the public services that we provide and to ensure job security for our members"
SUNY Downstate supporters are now eagerly awaiting Governor Cuomo's State-of-the-State Address.
Said Kent, "We're going to have to see whether or not we have been able to get a message to the governor that he's going to listen to, so that we can sit down and try to avoid a disaster that could happen as a result of closing SUNY Downstate or privatizing it."
Regardless, AFL-CIO spokesperson Ryan Delgado said that the Albany action was just one step in the campaign to preserve SUNY Downstate.
"We're going to raise our voices through the session and beyond to do what we have to to make sure that the critical services that Downstate provides remain for the people of Brooklyn," Delgado said.