A growing sense of urgency about the fate of SUNY Downstate Medical Center, coupled with an outpouring of strong community support, will carry the day May 9 when hundreds of concerned unionists, community activists and neighborhood residents rally to call for a plan that will keep Downstate open, public and functioning as a full-service hospital.
The day will start with a service at the Mount Zion Church of God on East 37th Street in Brooklyn. A coalition of dozens of Brooklyn clergy and community groups has been one of the hospital's strongest supporters. The coalition has met with lawmakers, helped lead rallies and quietly worked behind the scenes to keep the hospital's services open and on-site, and to keep jobs intact. Following the service, Downstate supporters will march to the medical center on Clarkson Avenue for a rally.
United University Professions, the NYSUT local that represents academic and professional faculty at SUNY's state-operated campus.es, has several thousand members at Downstate, which is the largest employer in central Brooklyn. As the union and its supporters prepare for the rally, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher is preparing a state-mandated plan for the long-term fiscal health of SUNY Downstate.
Although the enacted state budget did not provide any new funding for the hospital, the Legislature included a provision for a transfer of federal funding to Downstate that could allow it to remain open while Zimpher develops a comprehensive long-range fiscal plan and meets a number of conditions set out by the Legislature concerning the hospital.
The Legislature's provisions have become known as the "Downstate Sustainability Plan," and could lead to some restructuring of the hospital or elimination of some services, but would preserve Downstate's status as a teaching hospital.
Zimpher must submit her long-range plan to Governor Cuomo and the Legislature by June 1. She 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 the state Commissioner of Health Nirav Shah and from state budget director Robert Megna before it would go into effect by June 15.
Even as that deadline approach.es, NYSUT and UUP refuse to let up on their effort to keep lawmakers, the governor and the public mindful of the hospital's plight.
"From the very beginning, NYSUT has stood with our brothers and sisters in UUP to fight to keep SUNY Downstate a full-service public teaching hospital," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. "And the fight is not over yet. We remain committed to seeing this through."
The hospital has faced the threat of closure or privatization for nearly two years, but SUNY has never responded to questions and concerns about its fate and never revealed its own long-term plan for Downstate.
While more than 300 employees have received non-renewal notices, 86 of those jobs have been saved through intercession by UUP and hospital supporters; the union is working to reverse other non-renew.al notices. Still, the future of patient care and the fate of thousands of other workers remains uncertain.
"We will continue to advocate for the patients who need Downstate, as well as for the hundreds of hospital workers who make Downstate work so well for those patients," said Rowena Blackman-Stroud, UUP chapter president at Downstate.
"Our members and our supporters in the community reached out to lawmakers, who heard the real need for Downstate as a teaching hospital and a source of critical health care to residents. We have much work to do yet, but we at least can focus on the sustainability plan as a sign of hope."
The Legislature's actions, late in the budget session, affirm the power of coalition-building and community outreach, said UUP President Phil Smith. "The connections between Downstate and the surrounding community run very deep," Smith said. "The hospital has provided vital clinical care and health care services to residents who would otherwise have to travel to distant parts of the city to receive the same help. The hospital and the surrounding businesses that benefit from it have kept this neighborhood viable.
"The sustained level of support the hospital has received from its community speaks volumes about its importance to central Brooklyn. UUP is very grateful for this support, and wants the patients and residents who depend on Downstate to know that we are working relentlessly to keep this hospital open and public and fully there for central Brooklyn," he said.
SAVE THE DATE
Join the Downstate Coalition of Faith and Labor Community Leaders in an event May 9 to support SUNY Downstate. A 4:15 p.m. service takes place at Mt. Zion Church of God, 203 E. 37th St., Brooklyn, followed by a 5 p.m. rally at the Downstate Medical Center, 470 Clarkson Ave. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 718-270-1519.