Save Downstate Hospital: Protesters demand

Brooklyn Democratic Sen. Zellnor Y. Myrie.

Brooklyn Democratic State Sen. Zellor Y. Myrie on Tuesday joined colleagues, healthcare workers and labor leaders in a massive rally in Albany 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 in Central Brooklyn.

“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.”

Myrie noted that, last month, the governor and SUNY released a plan that would effectively close SUNY-Downstate, “forcing its patients— overwhelmingly low-income people of color— to seek care elsewhere.

“This plan would reduce healthcare precisely where it’s most needed,” he said.

Just last week, the New York State Health Department released new data showing Brooklyn’s deep racial and economic health disparities – data which Myrie said he forced the State to compile and provide.

“In the face of this data, proposing to close SUNY-Downstate Hospital is a slap in the face of this community,” the State Senator said. “I won’t accept it, and neither should you.”

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.

“If you moved the programs offered at my home campus, SUNY Cobleskill, to nearby colleges and turned the campus into a shopping center, do you still have a SUNY Cobleskill? Of course not,” Kowal added. “And that’s what’s happening at Downstate. If there is no building, there is no hospital.”

Kowal ripped SUNY for what he said is its “failure to schedule — or even mention holding — public hearings or forums to gather community input about its plans for the hospital.

“This is a radical plan for the hospital that will undoubtedly harm the health of the Central Brooklyn community,” Kowal said. “It is unthinkable that it has not been subject to a full public hearing that would give stakeholders an opportunity to have their say about the future of this vital institution.”

As a public teaching hospital, he said SUNY Downstate treats all patients who walk through its doors, including patients without insurance or are unable to pay for care.

He said it also provides “state-of-the-art procedures that other hospitals can’t or don’t offer.”

Kowal said the vast majority of Downstate’s patients — nearly 90 percent — are on Medicaid, are underinsured or have no health insurance.

“How can you pull from this community a hospital this is so needed and so necessary?” he asked. “Central Brooklyn is a diverse, underserved community that relies on the health care SUNY Downstate provides.”

New York State Union of Teachers (NYSUT) President Melinda Person said public input and the “critical community needs” of Central Brooklyn must be a priority in any plan regarding the hospital’s future.

“Reimagining SUNY Downstate with funding and state support could be transformative for Central Brooklyn,” she said. “Here is an opportunity to provide greater healthcare access and more targeted services in neighborhoods that desperately need them.

“The governor, Legislature and all stakeholders must work in tandem to forge a bright path forward that prioritizes public input and these critical community needs,” she added.

Kowal said many of the employees who could lose their jobs if the hospital is shut down were hailed as heroes during the early days of the pandemic, when New York City was the epicenter of the outbreak.

He noted that SUNY Downstate was designated as a COVID-only hospital in Spring 2020 by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo; the designation lasted nine months.

“Certainly, a large number of the courageous individuals who defended all of us during the darkest days of the pandemic will be negatively affected by SUNY’s plans for the hospital,” Kowal warned. “This is disturbing, to say the least.”

He also questioned the state’s plan to send $2.2 billion in Section 1115 waiver funding to bail out cash-strapped private hospitals in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Westchester counties.

“SUNY Downstate, a public hospital, isn’t getting a dollar of this funding,” Kowal said. “Instead of closing Downstate, let’s reimagine it as a viable, vital health care center that serves the unique needs of Brooklyn and New York City.

“There is another path forward, and UUP stands ready to work with the governor and the state Legislature to find a viable solution to this longstanding problem,” he added.

UUP said it is the nation’s largest higher education union, with more than 42,000 academic and professional faculty and retirees.

UUP said its members work at 29 New York state-operated campuses, including SUNY’s public teaching hospitals and health science centers in Brooklyn, Long Island and Syracuse. It is an affiliate of NYSUT, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the AFL-CIO.

In an e-letter, currently being 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.

In a letter to constituents on Tuesday, Myrie said that, despite decades of disinvestment and neglect, “SUNY-Downstate has been there for our community when we’ve needed it most.

“Downstate is the nation’s leader in training doctors from underrepresented communities, and more physicians practicing in New York City have graduated from SUNY-Downstate than from any other medical school,” he said.

“Protecting SUNY-Downstate is personal for me: During the darkest days of the pandemic, their staff treated me and so many of my constituents for COVID-19,” Myrie added. “Downstate is one of just two regional perinatal centers in Brooklyn, with some of the highest occupancy rates for labor and delivery beds in an area where maternal morbidity is unacceptably high for Black women.

“Today, I joined healthcare workers from SUNY-Downstate, along with colleagues, labor leaders and advocates, to say it loud and clear: We oppose this plan, and will fight any efforts to cut healthcare access in our community,” Myrie continued.