June 29, 2012
By Joe Maniscalco
Governor Andrew Cuomo came under scathing attack on Thursday as angry union members working at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and other supporters rallied against looming cutbacks they say are economically unjust, racially motivated and toxic to the surrounding community.
“Closing hospitals and cutting hospitals kills people – and the governor knows it,” said Rita Pearl, Social Justice Committee member for the First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn. “Only poor people are suffering from this. And why? Because they’re cutting Medicare and Medicaid funds. And the people who are reliant on those programs are the ones that come to this hospital.”
Protesters fear that workers at the hospital, located at 470 Clarkson Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, could begin losing their jobs as early as next week. Earlier this month, recently departed Downstate President Dr. John C. LaRosa warned staffers and faculty that “Downstate must take steps to reshape and transform its enterprises to achieve financial strength.”
“This is being done in a genocidal, racist manner,” retired Woodhull Hospital ultra sound technician and SEIU 1199 member Ira Wechsler said. “The Berger Commission has targeted central Brooklyn which serves mainly Black-American, Black-West Indian and Latino people. That’s where almost all of the cuts are going on. This is all being done on behest of Wall Street. Stephen Berger is a lifelong point man for Wall Street interests. Cuomo promises to make New York business-friendly, but at the expense of the working class.”
The Commission on Healthcare Facilities in the 21st Century, headed by financial services veteran Stephen Berger, has previously issued cost-cutting reports that, while controversial, could become the model for statewide implementation. Critics, however, maintain that the Berger Commission’s findings mean disaster for public institutions like SUNY Downstate.
The Governor’s Office did not respond to requests for comment. Ronald Najman, Director of SUNY Downstate Communications and Special Projects, blamed the hospital’s crisis on “recent financial stress owing to declining reimbursement from public and private players.”
“SUNY Downstate is working closely with the SUNY System Administration on a financial transformation for the campus and its University Hospital of Brooklyn,” Najman added. “We are working to align revenue and expenditures in order to maintain clinical services and ensure that healthcare education is preserved for the people of Brooklyn.”
Dr. Daniel Lugassy, one of the organizers of Thursday’s rally and a 2005 graduate of the University Hospital of Brooklyn, called the hospital administration’s financial maneuverings “absurd.”
“Medicaid actually pays Downstate different rates than it pays other hospitals,” Dr. Lugassy said. “The Berger Commission makes decisions based on hospitals losing lots of money. Well, it’s no surprise. When you have hospitals that are mostly based on Medicaid patients – not private insurance – of course they’re not going to be profitable. But the patients that have private health insurance in the Brooklyn area, their money goes to other hospitals. It doesn’t stay in Brooklyn.”
Others, including Neal Frumkin, Associate Vice-President of Inter-Union Relations Retiree’s Association of DC 37, framed Downstate’s woes in the larger context of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Today and everyday for the last ten years there has been disgusting amounts of money spent in the name of war,” Frumkin said. “Millions of people have died for oil profits in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. But when we want money to keep hospitals and schools open, or more housing, they say there’s no money. We can’t accept that. There’s something wrong with a system that says we have money for destruction and death but not money for the things that working people need to keep their lives together.”
Consolidating SUNY Downstate Medical Center could mean cutting more in-patient and other out-patient services and moving them to Long Island College Hospital, or even further away on Staten Island. Loss of the institution’s teaching facilities would only further negatively impact the community.
“This university hospital is the essentially the only public medical school in New York City,” Dr. Lugassy said. “It’s not just a medical school. You have nursing, physicians assistance, midwives, all different allied health professions. It’s the only public school that has a school of public health. Most of the students at SUNY Downstate come from Brooklyn and the rest of New York City. And most of the doctors and nurses stay within this area.”
Despite their outrage, those opposing any cutbacks to Downstate know that they face powerful opposition from those controlling the levers of power, and that allies outside their own ranks may be hard to find. Thursday’s vocal rally drew roughly 100 upset demonstrators, but no elected officials.
“Greed goes into health care decisions,” said Katie Robbins, organizer with Occupy Wall Street’s Healthcare For The 99% group. “The decisions are not based on what’s best for the community. They are based on how they’re going to make the most money. We’re the only country in the world that treat’s health care like a commodity. So, reversing that trend is huge.”
United University Professions Chapter President Rowena Blackman-Stroud also lashed at Governor Cuomo.
“Cuomo wants to be president one day,” she said. “I think right now we’re starting a fight against what his presidency might mean.”