June 2013
May 23, 2013

Downstate supporters await SUNY plan on hospitals fate

Author: Darryl McGrath
Source: NYSUT United
suny downstate rally
Caption: Union members, residents, clergy and community activists march to show how vital SUNY Downstate Medical Center is to the people of Brooklyn, to the medical staff who work there and to the medical students who study there. Photo by Maria R. Bastone.

A forthcoming state-mandated sustainability plan for SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Central Brooklyn could give the hospital's supporters their first real indication of the hospital's fate.

The state Legislature has stipulated that SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher submit the "Downstate Sustainability Plan" to Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature by June 1. The plan could lead to some restructuring of the hospital or elimination of services, but could preserve Downstate's status as one of the state's teaching hospitals.

"We have been working very hard to help develop solutions to preserve SUNY Downstate's public health and academic missions" NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta said.

The Legislature also stipulated that Zimpher must consult with labor, community representatives and other stakeholders and, to the extent practicable, allow for public comment as she develops the plan, which needs approval from Nirav Shah, the state commissioner of health, and from state Budget Director Robert Megna before it would go into effect by June 15.

"If SUNY is looking to the community to know how much this hospital is needed and valued, the chancellor will have no difficulty finding people who will testify to that," said Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions as of June 1. "We hope she will avail herself of the opportunity to hear from patients and employees."

UUP represents 35,000 academic and professional faculty at SUNY's state-operated campuses and has several thousand members at Downstate.

Kowal joined UUP Downstate Chapter President Rowena Blackman-Stroud last month in Brooklyn for a day of communityorganized events in support of the hospital. The day included a news conference by Brooklyn native and activist the Rev. Al Sharpton, an interfaith church service and a march and rally at the hospital's front steps.

More than 1,000 people, including former and current patients, hospital staff, clergy, lawmakers and community activists turned out in a rousing show of support for all the day's events. The hospital faces a $100 million shortfall, and many of its supporters have said they do not understand why New York appears to be trying to starve a state-owned hospital of state funds that could help it survive.

"The number one concern here is continued access to health care for residents of this part of Brooklyn that right now can only be found at Downstate," Blackman-Stroud said. "To continue to provide those services, this hospital needs to be supported by the state. We, as unionists, are extremely grateful to the people of Central Brooklyn who have turned out again and again on behalf of Downstate."

SUNY Downstate sees more than 400,000 patients a year and is the fourth-largest employer in Brooklyn. The ripple effect of the hospital's benefits to Central Brooklyn go far beyond the concrete steps upon which its supporters have rallied so many times.

The teaching hospital represents education, health care and employment, but it also serves as the foundation for a network of related small businesses that depend on the pedestrian traffic it generates.

Sen. Eric Adams (D) and Sen. Kevin Parker (D) have been instrumental in leading the fight to save SUNY Downstate. Both senators have been outspoken at public events and in the halls of the Capitol and have been relentless in their efforts to ensure that the citizens of Central Brooklyn continue to receive the quality health care services provided by SUNY Downstate Medical Center.

The rally was a testament to the many ways working families in New York City intersect with systems that provide public services outreach.

"This is about families. When you attack health care, you also harm families," Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents more than 25,000 faculty and staff at the City University of New York and CUNY Research Foundation, told the crowd.

If the story of this hospital can indeed be told by its surrounding neighborhood, then ZIP code 11203 in Central Brooklyn, which has at its heart Clarkson Avenue and the Downstate campus, is a testament to struggle, survival and hope.

Of the approximately 76,000 residents in this section of Brooklyn, some 41,000 were born in another country. Nearly one third of the households are headed by a single woman, and the median household income is $48,797. Nearly 14 percent of the residents in the surrounding blocks live below the poverty level, and renters outnumber homeowners by more than 10,000. Supporters say they want to put a face on those statistics, to send a message to lawmakers that the hospital is a critical part of this neighborhood.

"I live in this community," said Letisha Wadsworth, 63, who came to the May rally in a wheelchair and addressed the crowd. "This hospital is the center of my health services. Literally, it is a lifeline for me, because I am a dialysis patient.

"Without SUNY Downstate, I wouldn't be here; I would be dead. We're talking about a death sentence for this community if this hospital closes."

TAKE ACTION

Help save SUNY Downstate Medical Center. Contact the governor and your lawmakers and tell them to keep Downstate fully operational and public! Visit www.savejobsatsunydownstate.org or visit NYSUT's Member Action Center at mac.nysut.org.