Presided over turbulent closure and sale of LICH
By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The State University of New York (SUNY) announced on Tuesday that Dr. John “Skip” Williams, who served as the president of SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn during its tumultuous multi-year struggle to close and sell Long Island College Hospital (LICH), will be stepping down at the end of the academic year.
SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher announced the resignation.
The SUNY board appointed Williams to head the financially-troubled medical school in August of 2012. He replaced Dr. John LaRosa, who served in the post for 13 years.
SUNY officials had high praise for Dr. Williams.
On Tuesday, Chancellor Zimpher said in a statement, “Dr. Williams inherited a public university and teaching hospital in the throes of financial distress—the most severe in its history—and it is thanks in large part to his dedicated and exemplary leadership that SUNY Downstate has persevered in the years since.”
Upon Williams’ appointment in 2012, SUNY Chairman H. Carl McCall said that Williams was "precisely the person we have been looking for to lead Downstate through its financial restructuring.”
But critics called Williams a tool of a floundering state system which allowed both Downstate and LICH to hemorrhage millions of dollars, and who implemented SUNY’s catastrophic plan to sell off the historic Brooklyn hospital serving a growing population. The sale of LICH to Fortis Property Group officially closed in September.
“Good riddance!” said Susan Raboy, founder and former member of the advocacy group Patients for LICH, which worked to save the hospital over years of lawsuits and protests.
“He certainly didn’t care about hospital services for communities served by LICH,” Raboy added. “It was about money for Downstate Medical School, where some departments were on probation. He was a puppet for SUNY trustees.”
“Now that John Williams has done the dirty work of destroying hospital care in South Brooklyn, he's retiring from Downstate. I hope he doesn't need a hospital anytime soon,” said Jeff Strabone, who had served as spokesperson for the Cobble Hill Association (CHA) during the fight to save the hospital. CHA was one of the seven community groups that banded together to sue SUNY over the sale.
In lawsuits, Williams and SUNY were accused of a number of violations in their rush to close LICH, which sits on valuable real estate in Cobble Hill.
The alleged violations ranged from refusing to admit patients to firing doctors, padlocking units, diverting ambulances and intimidating staff and patients with armed guards.
The accusations never came to trial, however, as plaintiffs agreed to drop their claims in exchange for a reissued RFP for the sale of the property.
The reissued RFP yielded several bidders who offered to run LICH as a full-service hospital, but the hopes of advocates collapsed after SUNY eliminated these bids and fast-tracked their original first choice, Fortis.
Health advocates say the dismemberment of the LICH campus has eroded health care in neighborhoods from Red Hook to Downtown Brooklyn to Williamsburg. Neighbors are now fighting massive development planned by Fortis, which proposes to develop high-rise towers along the tree-lined streets of Cobble Hill.
A new administration at CHA has turned its attention to battling Fortis’ development plan.
SUNY’s Zimpher said, however, said that Williams had “overseen a successful restructuring of SUNY Downstate’s clinical operations and research enterprise, implemented a Performance Improvement Plan for the campus, expanded its academic accreditations and strategic partnerships, managed the controversial transition of Long Island College Hospital,” and more.
Williams said in a statement, “It has been personally fulfilling and my great privilege to lead SUNY Downstate Medical Center, a university that serves not only students, faculty, and staff but also a surrounding community that is among the most diverse in the world.
“My entire career has focused on ensuring that high value and high quality healthcare services are accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic circumstances, and I have had the opportunity to further this goal at SUNY Downstate in partnership with a committed team of gifted, tenacious individuals who came together and worked relentlessly toward rebuilding this fine institution of higher learning following a period of severe financial distress,” he said.
Williams was paid $650,000 a year plus an annual housing allowance of up to $80,000 and the use of a car, according to SUNY. Downstate was criticized for paying 15 Downstate administrators well in excess of $200,000 each even as the hospital was eliminating services, moving to shut down LICH and laying off staff.
A 2013 state controller’s audit recommended that Downstate should “reassess the senior management structure and salaries.”
In 2015, two of the top three highest-paid workers in New York State were SUNY Downstate teachers and administrators.