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New York governor lowers ax on health care
A Democrat targets the most vulnerable

February 23, 2007 | Page 16

MONIQUE DOLS and AFSANEH MORADIAN report on the budget cutbacks proposed by New York's newly elected Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

NEW YORK'S new Gov. Eliot Spitzer is the first Democrat to hold the office in more than a decade, and many people thought his election last November would bring long-awaited reforms in education, health care and other social services.

But Spitzer has proposed his first budget as governor--and it represents nothing less than an all-out attack on unions, public education, and affordable and quality health care.

With plans to slash more than $1 billion from state hospitals and nursing homes, Spitzer's budget takes aim at the most vulnerable--people who have already paid the price of decades of cutbacks in government programs in New York.

But Spitzer won't get his way without resistance. Unions and other organizations are mobilizing to put pressure on the governor and legislators--with a march and rally on Spitzer's New York office already set for March 15.

What you can do

For more information on Spitzer's attack on health care and education, and how you can get involved in the struggle against them, see the Health Care Education Project and Class Size Matters Web sites.

 

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SPITZER IS trying to focus media attention on his promises to create universal pre-Kindergarten classes and expand medical coverage for New York's 400,000 uninsured children. Both would be marked improvements in the lives of New York's poorest children.

But these long overdue initiatives pale beside the cuts Spitzer wants to make. For example, Spitzer's new budget sets aside $10.6 million to expand medical coverage for uninsured children. His cuts in health care spending amount to $1.3 billion--well over 100 times more than Spitzer wants to spend for expansion of coverage for children.

Spitzer's budget would freeze payments to Medicaid providers, placing added strain on public hospitals that disproportionably serve New York's poor and uninsured. His proposal would also reduce spending for recruitment and retention of patient care workers and cut Medicaid funding for care provided by teaching hospitals.

Overall, the governor wants to cut 10 times more from health programs like Medicaid than he proposes to spend on so-called "reforms" and "investments." And to top it off, Spitzer's proposed cuts are in addition to the $1.2 billion in federal funds that George W. Bush wants to slash from New York's patient care.

These cuts will hit hard at a time when 57 New York state hospitals and retirement homes are already being closed, merged and restructured. This "reorganization" was mandated by the unelected and unaccountable Berger Commission set up by the outgoing Republican Gov. George Pataki--and now being fully implemented by Spitzer.

On education, Spitzer's introduction of universal pre-K classes is greatly overshadowed by two of the biggest betrayed promises from the election--increasing the cap on charter schools and dropping the ball on lower class sizes.

Smaller class sizes were a centerpiece of his campaign, but his latest proposals doesn't require them--allowing several options instead, along with lengthening the school day and school year.

Spitzer's plan also lifts the cap on charter schools in the state from 100 to 250, allowing 50 to be established in New York City. More charter schools will take away valuable resources from public education--and have been shown to increase class sizes in public schools.

Spitzer does call for increases in school funding. He is proposing that school districts receive a 10 percent funding increase over last year, and he has spoken out for settling a 13 year-old legal battle to recover billions of dollars owed to New York City's underfunded schools.

Nevertheless, without a mandate to fund universal class-size reduction, the decision on how to spend extra education funds will be left up to local officials. In New York City, that means Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein--who both have a record of opposing mandates for class size reduction.

"Without specific monies targeted to reducing class sizes, there is no guarantee Chancellor Klein will use the new funding for that purpose," said Randy Weingarten, head of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which represents city educators. "That needs to be mandated by Albany."

What's more, Spitzer is using rhetoric about "accountability" to shift blame for a failing system onto teachers. He is demanding that any school district accepting additional funds sign an "accountability contract," which would measure a school's success based on test scores and student promotion.

Also in the name of accountability, he wants to redefine the criteria for teacher tenure by linking it to test scores. This would mean tenure would no longer be a seniority right, and many teachers in struggling schools would be unable to meet the new criteria.

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THE UFT and New York State Union of Teachers put enormous energy, money and resources behind Spitzer's campaign. Rather than rally the membership to demand additional money, the teachers' unions had a sole focus on lobbying and helping Spitzer to win election. Now, they have little to show for all the support they built for the governor.

The health care union 1199/SEIU is pointing a different way forward. On February 12, thousands of 1199/SEIU delegates met with the Greater New York Hospital Association to launch a campaign to defend New York's health care system against cuts.

Brooklyn Hospital CEO Samuel Lehfeld told the assembly that what the federal government spends on the Iraq war "in a day and a half" could eliminate the health care funding crisis.

Sandra Morales, a registered nurse at Manhattan's Beth Israel Medical Center, rallied the delegates, urging them to mobilize and pointing out that New York's health care system had no better defenders than 1199/SEIU members. "I am not a special interest," she said. "I am an interested party...I walk, talk, eat, sleep and breathe the health care system"

The union has called for lobby days on March 1 and March 20, plus a march and rally at Spitzer's New York City office on March 15.

"Spitzer is attacking our poor and elderly," Sybilla Daniel-Douglas, a nurse at Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn, wrote on the union's Web site. "These are the people who need help the most in our society...1199 will not allow this to happen. We will unite and speak up for their rights."

Advocates for the hospitals slotted for closure by the Berger Commission have shown that health care cuts don't have to be taken lying down. For example, a lawsuit has successfully challenged the constitutionality of the commission, and on January 4, a Bronx judge issued an order to stop the closure of one of the targeted hospitals, Westchester Square Medical Center in the Bronx.

But the court order has only postponed the closure. A long-term challenge to the closures and budget cuts will come when health care workers mobilize with millions of New Yorkers who will pay with their lives as the cuts move forward.

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