Passionate testimony at SUNY board meeting
By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Just days before long-anticipated contempt proceedings against SUNY and the state Department of Health were scheduled to take place before state Supreme Court Justice Johnny Lee Baynes, an agreement was reached to put legal action on hold for four weeks to give negotiations to find a new operator for Long Island College Hospital (LICH) a chance to succeed.
“This is a huge victory for LICH patients,” said Jill Furillo, Executive Director of the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA). “We are going to use this time to do everything possible to reach a permanent settlement that protects healthcare in our community. Our goal has always been to keep LICH open for care as a full service hospital, and this agreement is a step in that direction. We will not hesitate to litigate and to move forward with contempt should SUNY violate this agreement or any other court order during the standstill period.”
SUNY did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Advocates for LICH, a 155-year-old hospital in Cobble Hill, said the "standstill" agreement came about Thursday night because Governor Cuomo finally got involved in the fight that threatened to tar the reputation of SUNY and state officials.
SUNY Downstate administrators are accused of disregarding numerous court orders prohibiting them from reducing the level of medical services provided at LICH. The alleged violations range from refusing to admit patients to firing doctors, padlocking units, diverting ambulances and intimidating staff and patients with armed guards.
The Cobble Hill Association (CHA) said in a statement late Friday, "The Cobble Hill Association and our allies in the movement to save LICH have agreed to a four-week adjournment of SUNY's contempt hearing scheduled for Monday. Monday's hearing would have called to the Court the SUNY Board of Trustees on accusations of criminal and civil contempt."
Advocates' attorneys had been asking Justice Baynes to levy fines of $250,000 per day "until such time as the Long Island College Hospital (LICH) is fully operational and provides the same level of services it provided on April 1, 2013."
Thursday's agreement requires SUNY to follow Justice Bayne's orders to "devote sufficient resources to maintain . . . current services at LICH, including but not limited to BLS [Basic Life Support] ambulance service, and shall not effectuate any layoffs during the Standstill Period."
If at any point during the four-week standstill period SUNY violates the agreement, CHA said, "we are entitled to ask the Court to resume contempt proceedings immediately."
CHA says this four-week standstill is different than previous delays because this time Brooklyn finally caught the eye of Governor Andrew Cuomo.
"After nearly a year of silence, Governor Cuomo's own Counsel has joined the negotiations over the future of LICH. We welcome, at long last, the Governor's attention. It seems that the threat of a contempt hearing and fines finally got his full attention," CHA said.
Over the next four weeks, a coalition working to save LICH, which include six community groups, the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), 1199SEIU, patients, Public Advocate (and soon-to-be-Mayor) Bill de Blasio and the Concerned Physicians of LICH will attempt to negotiate "a resolution to the ongoing litigation." If no resolution is reached, the contempt hearing will proceed on December 16.
CHA, one of the six community groups, says the coalition "will seek from these negotiations the protection of LICH's assets and mission, the restoration of medical services, and full transparency in the RFP process to find a new operator for LICH.
"After a year of intransigence from the SUNY Trustees, we are cautiously optimistic that the Governor's involvement may make progress possible."
Estela Vazquez, Executive Vice President with 1199SEIU, was also optimistic, calling the agreement, "great news."
"It will give all parties a chance to come together to find a resolution, and is a step toward reaching a long-term agreement that will preserve our community’s vital healthcare services. LICH will remain open for care and workers will not have to live with the threat of layoffs as we approach the holiday season.”
As sometimes tearful testimony by LICH advocates at a SUNY Board of Trustees meeting on Friday demonstrated, the community's patience with SUNY -- which took over LICH two years ago and has been trying to shut it down since February -- is wearing thin.
"There will be deaths if the emergency room closes again," said Dr. Jon Berall, one of two LICH Ombudsmen appointed by Justice Baynes. Calling the destruction of LICH's historic medical program "vicious," Dr. Berall added, "Considering the deaths as one of the costs of building condos should not be part of the equation."
Dr. Concha Mendoza told the trustees, "Doctors have been humiliated and scorned, their pay withheld and their benefits withdrawn. The operating rooms, GI and Oncology units have been closed since July, despite the injunction."
Jeff Strabone, a board member of the Cobble Hill Association (CHA), told the SUNY trustees that LICH was essential to the neighborhood of Red Hook, designated a Health Professional Shortage Area, and cited LICH's life-saving role during Superstorm Sandy and 9/11. He said that SUNY's attempt to paint LICH as responsible for SUNY's financial shortfall was a "misrepresentation."
"LICH had operating losses of only $4.7 million for all of 2010, the last full year before being acquired by SUNY . . .And that was while LICH was paying $30 million a year in malpractice premiums that it no longer pays," Strabone said. "Yet as recently as yesterday, I read a published report that SUNY claims LICH is losing $13 million a month."
Julie Semente, a LICH nurse and a member of NYSNA, refuted SUNY Board Chairman H. Carl McCall's claim that LICH doctors have "fled."
"Our beds were full to capacity. Then you cut budgets, refused admissions, pulled out physicians and patients. Doctors have not fled -- they are locked out."
Margaret Weber testified that she, her son and her husband have all received "excellent care" at LICH. "Losing LICH diminishes the life of the community. It's unacceptable: LICH is a goldmine and a treasure."
Roy Sloane, President of the Cobble Hill Association, proposed "putting anger aside and hitting the 're-set' button. "Let’s use the standstill period negotiated by the Governor’s office last night" to consider "genuine, long term sustainable solutions."
Chairman McCall, at the conclusion of Friday's meeting, again denied that SUNY was interested in building condos on the site of LICH. "We never considered it. Real estate issues have never been on our agenda. The property is not worth what a lot of people think it's worth."
McCall blamed SUNY's difficulty in finding another operator on the lawsuits surrounding its handling of LICH. "Lots of people are reluctant to respond [to the Request for Proposals, or RFP] because of legal issues," he said. "We can't share the RFP because you're suing us. That made it impossible to have talks to find another operator."
When McCall said he would have to raise tuition at other SUNY colleges "to keep a hospital operating in Brooklyn," someone from the crowd called out, "What about all those security guards? How much did that cost?"
"Thank you, that concludes this meeting," he said. "We're done."
Updated on November 16 with a quote from 1199SEIU.