NYSUT members are not letting go of SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn without an all-out fight.
Through visits to legislative district offices and testimony by NYSUT's higher education leaders before state legislative committees, union members are putting relentless pressure on state lawmakers to keep the State University of New York-owned teaching hospital open and public.
Lawmakers are taking notice.
"Many of my constituents are serviced by that hospital," said Assemblywoman Inez Barron, whose district is near the hospital's neighborhood. "How do you not fund enough programs for lifesaving services to people?"
Barron, who attended an Assembly health committee hearing in Brooklyn last month that included testimony by NYSUT leaders, said her colleagues are asking how talk of closing or privatizing the hospital could get this far without their oversight, and they intend to ask that question during budget debates.
Thousands of low-income residents in the hospital's Flatbush neighborhood stand to lose or face diminished access to clinics, outpatient services and urgent care, and critical staff would be let go, should the hospital be closed or privatized.
"Governor Cuomo has proposed legislation that includes a pilot program that would allow business corporations to own and operate SUNY Downstate Medical Center," said Rowena Blackman-Stroud, Downstate UUP chapter president.
"UUP is very concerned that this legislation could potentially lead to the closure or privatization of SUNY Downstate and change the health care delivery system in New York state to a for-profit model. The chapter's coalition of faith, labor and community leaders is opposing this legislation and continues to advocate for additional funding for SUNY Downstate and fight the hundreds of non-renewals," she said.
UUP President Phil Smith, in testimony to the joint finance committees, said if Downstate is privatized, the situation "would be an enormous decrease in health care services for the Brooklyn community, a significant reduction in the number of primary care physicians available for the New York City area, and an economic blow to the community that could be worse than any other over the last 20 or 30 years."
NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta, in his testimony before the Assembly's health committee hearing in Brooklyn, urged lawmakers "to do whatever it takes" to keep Downstate from closing.
"I ask that you reject the notion that Downstate be privatized and urge you to provide state resources to keep Downstate a full-service, state-operated public hospital," Pallotta said.
Superstorm Sandy highlighted the critical role Downstate plays in the lives of Brooklyn residents when it was one of the few major hospitals in the borough that didn't close, lose power or flood. Downstate took in dozens of patients evacuated from more vulnerable hospitals and nursing homes.
UUP member Dr. Karen Benker, a former clinical physician and current associate professor at Downstate, told Assembly health committee members that closing or downsizing the hospital "would force tens of thousands of people who need specialized, ongoing care into the already crowded waiting rooms of local emergency rooms."
NYSUT is demanding that lawmakers act to keep Downstate open, public and properly funded.
"We have traveled across the state expressing our concern about the severe impacts this situation may produce, and may produce soon," Smith told lawmakers.
"Downstate's medical school trains most of the primary care physicians required by the city; the medical school serves primarily students of color. Thousands of people who work at Downstate are people of color and a quarter of the population served by the hospital earns less than $15,000 annually and lives in a community with one of the highest unemployment rates in New York."