Cunningham vows never to support closing Downstate Hospital

Assemblyman Brian Cunningham addresses congregation at Fenimore Street United Methodist Church on Feb. 4.
Photo by Nelson A. King

As protests heighten in urging Gov. Kathy Hochul and State University of New York (SUNY) Chancellor John B. King, Jr. to reverse course on the proposed closure of SUNY Downstate Hospital, State Assemblyman Brian Cunningham has vowed never to support closing the major hospital in Central Brooklyn.

“I want to address the recent concerns regarding the future of Downstate Hospital. Let me be unequivocal: Closing SUNY Downstate is not an option that is on the table or one that I would ever support,” said Cunningham, representative for the 43rd Assembly District in Central Brooklyn, in a letter to constituents on Friday.

“However, it’s no secret that Downstate, like many hospitals across our borough and state, faces financial challenges due to Medicare reimbursement rates set by the federal government,” added the son of a Jamaican immigrant mother. “Designating the hospital as a COVID-only hospital has only exacerbated its financial situation by limiting the procedures performed on the site.

“Last month, the governor and chancellor developed a plan they believed would both save the institution and provide the quality care the community deserves. I have been clear that community input and engagement must be at the forefront of the conversation,” Cunningham continued. “I am committed to preserving the healthcare resources and jobs that the institution provides.

“While I am open to a reimagining process to ensure long-term stability and solvency, I cannot and will not stand for a process that does not put our communities’ needs first,” he said, stating that he recently introduced legislation with Sen. Kevin Parker, representative for the 21st Senate District in Brooklyn, which would establish a SUNY Downstate Medical Support Fund to provide financial support for infrastructural upgrades and expansion.

Cunningham said this bill will facilitate research and development grants in medical and health-related fields, offer scholarships and financial aid, and support community health initiatives and outreach programs.

In addition, he said the Brooklyn Health Care Commission would be established in examining the system of general hospitals, nursing homes, ambulatory and primary care facilities, and medical school facilities in Kings County, and recommending changes to that system.

“Those two bills, coupled with A07546, authored by Sen. (Zellnor) Myrie and me, will develop a sustainability plan for the State University of New York’s Downstate Medical Center,” Cunningham said. “As the process continues, my fellow elected officials and I will be in close contact with SUNY leadership and the public.

“The work of governing is challenging, and requires the active participation of its citizenry,” he added. “I will continue to fight for the neighborhoods of Central Brooklyn, while I’m in Albany, and I look forward to ensuring our priorities and values are reflected in both my legislation and the New York State Budget.”

Last Tuesday, Myrie joined colleagues, healthcare workers and labor leaders in a massive rally in Albany in appealing to Hochul and King to halt the proposed closure of SUNY Downstate Hospital.

“Our community, our people, walked past refrigerators with dead people in them; we had doctors who had heart attacks; and you have the temerity to tell us you want us to go; how dear you!” Myrie, whose grandmother hailed from Jamaica and who represents the 20th Senate District in Central Brooklyn, told the vociferous rally in Albany.

“We want you to serve’, and we serve; and, for that, we get a slap in the face,” added Myrie, flanked by colleagues, healthcare workers and labor leaders. “When I had COVID, Downstate saved my life, and you tell us Downstate has to close.

“We reject this plan!” he declared. “And don’t come to Central Brooklyn for votes because this is an election cycle. You will hear from us until justice is done.”

Myrie said SUNY-Downstate – New York City’s only State-run hospital, one of only two regional perinatal centers in Brooklyn – provides care to his most vulnerable constituents.

“In the face of deep healthcare disparities, it is simply unconscionable that the governor and SUNY would propose shuttering Downstate,” he said. “We will stand strongly opposed to any plan that reduces access to care where we know it’s needed most.”

George Gresham, president of the labor union 1199SEIU, told the rally: “We cannot sit idle while New York’s hospitals fall like dominoes — Kingsbrook Jewish, Eastern Niagara, Mt. Sinai Beth Israel, and now SUNY Downstate.

“Hospital closures have dire consequences for our state, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color, which already have fewer hospital beds and face glaring healthcare inequities,” he warned. “With New York sitting on nearly $50 billion in reserves, there is simply no reason why we should be facing a healthcare emergency.

“Gov. Hochul must pass a budget that saves hospitals by ending the Medicaid underpayments that are a root cause of this crisis,” Gresham added.

United University Professions (UUP), the nation’s largest higher education union, which represents over 2, 300 workers at Downstate, said SUNY’s plan to make drastic changes in the structure and operation of SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University “will instead undermine the hospital’s central mission and the Brooklyn communities it serves.”

UUP President Frederick E. Kowal said that SUNY’s plan would “essentially relegate the safety net hospital to a wing in Kings County Hospital Center; other health care services would be farmed out to neighboring hospitals.

“This will unequivocally result in the closure of SUNY Downstate,” he said. “SUNY is calling its vision for Downstate a transformation, but it is anything but that. Let’s call this what it is: SUNY is closing Downstate.”

In an e-letter, widely circulated by the Action Network and sponsored by the UUP, the UUP urges Gov. Kathy to “stop SUNY’s ill-conceived plan to shut down the public teaching hospital at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn.

“SUNY’s plan would essentially relegate the safety net hospital to a wing in Kings County Hospital Center; other health care services would be farmed out to neighboring hospitals,” the letter cautions. “This will absolutely result in the closure of SUNY Downstate.

“By sending this e-letter, you are asking Gov. Hochul to work with the Legislature and all stakeholders to come up with a sustainability plan for SUNY Downstate,” it adds.

On Wednesday, SUNY announced that it will launch a “community-driven visioning process” to shape its proposed $300 million capital investment “to build a stronger SUNY Downstate.”

“SUNY will engage in a robust engagement process, including community surveys and five themed focus groups and stakeholder sessions in February and March,” the statement said.

In mid-March, SUNY said it will publish a report detailing findings and recommendations.

“After extensive analysis of community health needs, hospital usage in the Downstate service area, the perilous condition of the Downstate building, and historical and current patterns in Downstat’s capacity, SUNY and the Executive Chamber have established a set of principles to guide the path forward,” SUNY said.

It said the community survey and focus groups will engage Downstate students, alumni, faculty, staff, and patients; Central Brooklyn residents; healthcare advocates; community-based organizations; and faith leaders.

SUNY said the process will begin with a needs assessment “to better understand stakeholders’ perspective on the current state of affairs at SUNY Downstate’s health sciences university and teaching hospital, followed by a visioning process to ensure that community-sourced ideas inform SUNY’s plan for a stronger Downstate at all levels.”

SUNY said the stakeholder workshops and focus groups will engage Downstate personnel and community members on their concerns and aspirations surrounding a variety of topics, including the following themes: Needs Assessment — tackling Health Disparities in Central Brooklyn — assessing the practical impact of systemic health inequities on Downstate’s surrounding neighborhoods; Training the Healthcare Workforce of Tomorrow – engaging students, faculty, and staff on the academic experience at Downstate and generating ideas to modernize education, training, and research capabilities; and Building a Secure Future for Downstate Staff – hearing and addressing workforce concerns about how Downstate’s future will affect them.

Other themes are: Visioning Process – Investing in an Affordable, Accessible Community – envisioning a future for the Downstate hospital site that meets the holistic needs of its Brooklyn neighborhood; and Envisioning a Stronger Downstate for All of Us – developing recommendations for Downstate’s academic and healthcare future driven by community input.

While SUNY Downstate continues to address systemic health disparities in Brooklyn and beyond, it said “the hospital is in danger of failing after years of financial instability and a facility in disrepair.”

It said healthcare facilities across the country are also seeing more care being delivered outside of the hospital, stating that “Downstate, which experiences lower bed utilization rates and massive budget deficits, is no exception.”

Additionally, SUNY noted that the State Department of Health recently released a study on healthcare inequities in Brooklyn, highlighting the impact of race and ethnicity, foreign-born status and socioeconomic status on health disparities in the borough.

SUNY said the report “underscores the urgent need for a bold plan to stabilize and strengthen Downstate, so it can pursue its essential mission for generations to come.”

“Downstate is a gem of the SUNY system, and this historic investment will put us on track to better serve our students and community,” Chancellor King said. “The status quo puts our community including our staff and patients at catastrophic risk, and we cannot allow that to continue. We are committed to working in partnership with the community and all stakeholders to build a strong future for Downstate.”

“This is a new chapter for Downstate, one filled with challenges and opportunities,” SUNY Downstate President Dr. Wayne J. Riley said. “Our community’s input in shaping the transformation process will help us build a sustainable, vibrant future for this essential institution.”

Working with community partners and stakeholders, SUNY said it intends to put forward a “bold plan to secure a stronger, more stable future for Downstate’s students, staff and faculty while enhancing the quality and quantity of healthcare services available to Brooklyn residents.”

It said the capital investment, which will be informed by stakeholder input, is intended to: Continue to provide primary and specialty care and ambulatory surgery and expand access to urgent care; enhance the academic experience for students, including a new student center to provide academic services and supports; and build a new Brooklyn Institute for Health Equity to do action-oriented research on health disparities.”

In addition, SUNY said Downstate’s current inpatient services will be provided by Downstate staff at other facilities in collaboration with other Brooklyn hospitals, including through a SUNY Downstate “wing” at Kings County.

SUNY said the dates for the workshop sessions and surveys will be released shortly.

To learn more about the plan development and visioning process, sign up for updates at