DOH witness sees, knows ‘nothing’
By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
On Friday, the contrast between two witnesses – one testifying on behalf of Long Island College Hospital (LICH), the other for SUNY Downstate Medical Center, which is seeking to shut down LICH -- could not have been more dramatic.
Sworn in first before Supreme Court Justice Johnny Lee Baynes, on the third day of a hearing drawing citywide attention, was Gladys Figueroa, a health systems specialist who testified on SUNY Downstate’s side as the state Department of Health (DOH) employee "with personal knowledge" of the situation inside LICH, located in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.
Despite her status as DOH’s expert on the state of affairs at LICH, however, Figueroa swore to the judge that she spends only five minutes inside the hospital on the days she is there, and that is only to pick up data about staffing levels from the LICH staff.
Figueroa testified that she was not aware of other conditions inside the hospital. In response to Justice Baynes’ questions regarding claims of reduced staffing levels, the dismissal of the ear, nose and throat specialist from the emergency room, calls being made to the police, armed guards on site, the front door being bolted shut or potentially illegal paperwork being presented to patients, Figueroa said she was not aware of these issues.
When asked by Justice Baynes if LICH staffing was “adequate,” Figueroa replied that she wasn’t responsible for that assessment.
Testifying for the groups suing to keep LICH open was Dr. Alice Garner, chief of the Neonatal (newborn) Unit at LICH, a doctor for 27 years and a LICH employee since 2007. Dr. Garner testified that armed guards had been placed in the neonatal unit within the last 30 days, and said the experience was “unnerving.”
“When a parent asked what was going on, she was told they were there for her protection,” Dr. Garner said. “I feel intimidated. I take care of babies and there are guns there. When I come into the hospital I’m subject to a purse search. There are five to six guards in front of the hospital, and five or six in the lobby to escort people. I’ve been followed, and colleagues complain to me that they’ve been followed.”
Justice Baynes appeared to be taken aback. “You’ve been a doctor for 27 years and your purse is being searched?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
In response to Justice Baynes’ further questions, Dr. Garner described a hospital operating under dire conditions. She testified that other doctors at LICH were unofficially signing up to provide backup for the one doctor left in the ER by SUNY, and that she has been harassed by Dr. Michael Lucchesi, the chief medical officer. She said that she had to call police in when she was informed that patients were about to be transferred out, against a court order. She testified that patients were being made to sign a document stating that the hospital was unsafe and that the ear, nose and throat specialist in the ER was being eliminated.
“Let’s say I go there because I have something stuck in my throat from a Chinese restaurant. How will I be treated?” Justice Baynes asked.
“The ER doctors there will use their years of experience, that’s all I can say,” she replied.
Dr. Garner also answered questions posed by attorneys for SUNY. She said she knew nothing about the Human Resources Office being approached by an unauthorized group, and denied looking at patient records other than her own. “No, never,” she said.
SUNY and DOH attorneys protested many of Justice Baynes’ moves during the hearing, including allowing DOH employee Figueroa to testify at all. Since “there is an open criminal investigation, Department of Health lawyers, who do not represent her individually, cannot advise her,” they said.
“The court posits that she is an employee of the Department of Health and the questions asked of her transpired during the course of her employment as an employee of the Department of Health,” Justice Baynes replied.
They also protested the fact that witnesses were being questioned and asked if the purpose was fact-finding or another purpose, saying, “We have the right to examine witnesses and know what the questions are.”
“It’s the issue of an orderly transition, I said that previously,” Justice Baynes explained. “The Sustainability Plan refers to an orderly transition, an orderly winding down [of the hospital]. That’s all I’m doing. It may appear as something else, but it’s not. If that time comes, anyone has the opportunity to recall witnesses. I have no predisposition one way or the other – my goal is to see justice done.”
SUNY attorney Anthony Genovese said that as a witness, Dr. Garner had no right to be in the courtroom.
“As a member of Concerned Physicians of LICH, she’s a party to the action and she has a right to be in the courtroom,” Justice Baynes countered.
More squabbling about witnesses followed, joined in by attorney Jim Walden, representing LICH supporters Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and local civic groups, and Richard Seltzer, representing the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), 1199 SEIU, the Concerned Physicians of LICH and others.
Throughout Friday’s hearing, Justice Baynes emphasized his desire that the parties come to a settlement. “I believe good faith negotiations are going on right now. I have enough to decide everything but the contempt notices," he said.
“I could rule from the bench now, but it takes a better judge to not rule,” he said. While by law Justice Baynes has 60 days to rule, he said he hoped to come to a decision by next Friday.
“There is a stay in effect,” he emphasized. “That means do nothing.”
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio called Friday’s events a demonstration of “clear violations” that will “lead to real consequences” for SUNY Downstate.
SUNY Downstate spokesperson Robert Bellafiore said, “Everyone is continuing to work on the path discussed in court today and that Justice Baynes laid out.”
Responding to questions about the Department of Health's oversight of LICH, DOH spokesperson Marci Natale told the Brooklyn Eagle late Friday, "The state Health Department is devoting appropriate staffing resources, including a number of surveyors and other personnel, to monitor conditions at Long Island College Hospital to assure the health and safety of all patients."
On Friday afternoon, attorneys for LICH supporters pushed for a “standstill” provision that would guarantee that SUNY makes no staffing or service changes while awaiting the decision. As of press time, this option was still being explored in private by all parties. Check back for the latest update on this story.
Updated at 11:50 p.m. with a quote from DOH spokesperson Marci Natale.