In surprise vote, SUNY board puts off plan to turn LICH into condos and urgent care center

Supporters of Long Island College Hospital (LICH) were jubilant late Tuesday after the SUNY board of trustees voted to table a resolution that would have allowed SUNY Downstate to begin negotiations to turn LICH into condos and an urgent care center.

SUNY's Academic Medical Centers and Hospital Committee had expressed unease with the notion of selling LICH’s Cobble Hill, Brooklyn real estate before entering into discussions with the community and a new city administration. After pressure from SUNY chairman H. Carl McCall, however, the committee approved an amended resolution allowing negotiations with the developer to begin.

McCall said that if negotiations with Fortis weren't approved, "then we can't do anything."

The executive committee was expected to rubber stamp the Hospital Committee's decision -- but within minutes McCall returned with word that the board would table the vote, leading the auditorium at the College of Optometry in Manhattan to break out in cheers.

“This is another huge victory for the Save LICH campaign,” said Julie Semente, a long-time nurse at LICH and a member of the New York State Nurses Association, which has been fighting alongside community groups, 1199SEIU, elected officials and patients to keep LICH open as a full service hospital. "Even the trustees themselves spoke against the condo plan." Semente called for a return to full hospital services at LICH, an RFP controlled by the court, and a new operator.

Jeff Strabone, spokesperson for the Cobble Hill Associations said in a tweet, "This is a victory for community power today!"

The  resolution would have allowed SUNY to begin negotiations to transact a deal with the mega-developer Fortis Property Group, which told SUNY it had an agreement to lease much of the property now being used as the main hospital building to ProHealth, which specializes in primary care. The other 20 or so LICH buildings would be developed as condominiums.

In a Powerpoint presentation filled with real estate valuations and numbers representing SUNY Downstate’s debt level, Lora Lefebvre,  SUNY Associate Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs told the trustees,  “This would transform the LICH campus into a medical mall” with facilities for urgent care, dental care, physical therapy, rehab and other health services.

But trustee Joseph Belluck said he had was “not exceedingly confident" with the direction SUNY had taken with LICH, and asked why the community could not be consulted with before the vote was taken. Another trustee wondered if the vote should be deferred until Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who has committed to saving LICH, takes office.

Belluck succeeded in changing the language of the resolution, from allowing the board to begin to “transact” an agreement to “begin negotiations to transact” one -- but that change wasn’t enough to convince the executive committee to approve the resolution.

"This proposal was selected for consideration because of its strong focus on access to health care services and community engagement,” SUNY spokesperson David Doyle said after support for the selloff crumbled. “Chairman McCall chose to table the vote when a number of trustees voiced their concerns. The crisis at LICH threatens the entire SUNY enterprise and our nearly half a million students at all sixty four campuses. We will continue to pursue solutions that will ensure the community's access to medical care while allowing SUNY to exit operations.”

Attorney Jim Walden of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher told the Brooklyn Eagle, "For community members in need of a hospital with emergency services, a 'medical mall with luxury condos' sounds like someone's idea of a bad joke. We are heartened that some trustees took a deep breath, and we look forward to continuing to press the community's case: it needs, expects, and deserves a real hospital operator, not a land grab with some medical frills."  Walden represents LICH advocates including Bill de Blasio and six community groups.

City Councilman Stephen Levin said in a statement, “I have never seen anything like I did today. While I am still very concerned about the future of Long Island College Hospital, I am pleasantly surprised by SUNY’s decision to table their motion to enter into negotiations to sell the hospital. The community, doctors, nurses, elected leaders and everyone else in this fight have been clear all along that LICH must remain a full service hospital so it can continue to provide essential care for Brooklyn. Long Island College Hospital provides vital care for Brooklyn and we will continue to fight until a new operator is secured who will provide the community the full service hospital it needs.”

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, a long time proponent of the hospital, issued a statement late Tuesday saying, ""What is needed now is a real plan from SUNY that ensures the communities surrounding Long Island College Hospital have access to critical health care services, including emergency care.  Instead of tabling decisions, SUNY needs to recognize there is a path forward here, and take it."

Sue Raboy, spokesperson for Patients for LICH, told the Eagle, "I am very excited about this vote. This has been quite a day.  We proved that when the patients, communities, doctors, nurses and hospital workers come together to keep LICH open we can win." She added, "I have full faith that Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio is going to do the right thing."

While the RFP (Request For Proposals) process was carried out entirely behind closed doors, SUNY said that Fortis' response ranked highest in its search.

Expressing grave concern with the secrecy shrouding SUNY’s process, a number of Brooklyn officials sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday asking for an RFP redo. Advocates want to limit applicants to those planning to maintain a full-service hospital.

LICH serves a swath of Brooklyn ranging from Red Hook to Williamsburg, including Downtown Brooklyn -– all areas exploding with new residential and business development.

Over the next two and a half years, 4,746 residential units will be completed in Downtown Brooklyn alone, almost doubling its population, according to a study by the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. Residential towers and hotels are going up in Brooklyn Heights proper and in Brooklyn Bridge Park, in Gowanus and in Williamsburg.

Health advocates are troubled by the fact that no assessment of the neighborhoods’ health needs has been carried out and that the traditional role played by LICH in providing “surge capacity” during disasters like September 11 and Superstorm Sandy has been overlooked.

One area hard hit by closing LICH would be Red Hook, a federally designated “Health Professional Shortage Area” even during good times.

SUNY said that respondents to its RFP had done their own assessment of northwestern Brooklyn's needs.

This story was updated Dec. 18 at 3:50 p.m. with a quote from SUNY spokesperson David Doyle.