We won't abandon LICH

Yoni Golijov reports on the struggle of health care workers and community members fighting to keep the doors of Long Island College Hospital open.

Members of the NYSNA participated in a health fair and a speakout against SUNY's plans (Peter Rugh | SW)Members of the NYSNA participated in a health fair and a speakout against SUNY's plans (Peter Rugh | SW)

ON THURSDAY, June 20, in violation of a New York state Supreme Court restraining order, the State University of New York (SUNY) Board of Trustees began an illegal and life-threatening attempt to close Long Island College Hospital (LICH) in Brooklyn. But the nurses, physicians and other health care workers at LICH have vowed to keep the historic 155 year-old hospital open.

SUNY, which owns the hospital, ordered ambulances to be diverted from LICH and sent to other hospitals starting at 6 a.m. last Thursday. Ambulance diversion was continuing as this article was being written, in spite of the state Supreme Court's statement that diverting ambulances would be a "clear violation" of the court's restraining order to keep LICH open for care--a statement made the day before SUNY began diverting ambulances.

This blatant disregard for the state's highest legal authority is only trumped by SUNY's complete disregard for patients' lives.

But SUNY picked the wrong people to mess with, at the wrong time.

Julie Semente, a registered nurse in the Intensive Care Unit, said what thousands of workers and patients are feeling: "If they want to shut down this hospital, they're going to have to fight to do it. We're not abandoning the hospital. From day one, we said we're not leaving. We haven't. And we will not."

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JUST TWO years ago, nurses elected a rank-and-file slate to the board of the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA). It is the first time that staff nurses have dominated the board of directors in the association's 100-year-plus history, and it shows.

NYSNA's successful organizing and activated rank-and-file strategy have already led to important victories since the beginning of the year, including building a coalition of forces in Brooklyn that won the initial restraining order at LICH; stopping a bill pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that would have allowed for-profit hospitals in Brooklyn; and stopping another hospital, Interfaith Medical Center, from closing.

The initial activism by nurses at LICH inspired other workers in the hospital--most importantly, those from 1199SEIU--to join the fight. The two unions then joined forces with a group calling itself Concerned Physicians at LICH.

The joint campaign mobilized health care workers at the hospital, but also reached out to community groups, such as New York Communities for Change, the Commission on the Public's Health System, Save Our Safety Net Coalition, Red Hook Initiative, the National Action Network and several surrounding neighborhood associations. The coalition then coordinated a successful legal strategy and pressured politicians to speak out against the closure.

Just three months prior to the announcement that LICH would close, the new NYSNA was overwhelmed with coordinating recovery efforts following Hurricane Sandy. It worked with unions and activist groups to demand that the city put as much effort as it did into getting Wall Street back up and running (in just two days) into providing quality health care for poor people and people of color (who are still fighting for it).

During this latest attack on Brooklyn patients, NYSNA responded by organizing a health fair on June 23, where nurses provided free health screenings for patients who needed care. The union used the event as a speak-out about the criminal behavior of SUNY's Board of Trustees.

Dr. Saul Melman told the crowd, "Paramedics have stopped by and shown me photographs--photographs from today--showing ambulances lined up, waiting to drop patients off at emergency rooms on the other side of Brooklyn."

City Council member Letitia James gave a glimpse of what that kind of overcrowding means, saying that in one hospital emergency room, there were five fistfights due to long waits.

According to nurse Julie Semente:

We heard from one ambulance driver that a patient expected to be having a heart attack could not immediately be seen at the next ER because they were so overcrowded. Meanwhile, we are a cardiac center, we have full staff, nurses, physicians, housekeepers, everybody--and an empty ER! It's outrageous that they play with people's lives like this as a means to their ends.

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WHAT ARE SUNY's ends?

Trudy Wassner, a patient whose chronic illness makes her a frequent visitor at LICH, put it this way, "I was lying in my room, and there's windows, and I was thinking, 'Gee, isn't this beautiful, the water view.' And that's very ironic, because when I got out, I realized that's exactly what's going to destroy this hospital--the beautiful water views and neighborhood."

At the Sunday speak-out, Jill Furillo, a registered nurse and NYSNA president, said, "We have to ask ourselves: Why is SUNY Downstate doing this?" To which someone in the crowd yelled out in response, "Condominiums!"

That's exactly what real estate developers did to St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village, shuttering the important health care center to sell condos for up to $12.8 million. "This is a very dangerous situation here in Brooklyn," said Furillo. "Make no mistake about it--very dangerous. When you start diverting patients over economic issues such as wanting to make profits with condos, we know that people die."

While diverting ambulances is by far the lowest that the SUNY Board of Trustees has yet stooped, their attempts to close LICH have been underhanded from the beginning.

The Board first voted to close LICH in a closed-door meeting in February, but NYSNA and 1199 sued, and the New York state Supreme Court ruled that the vote violated the states' open meeting laws. The court ruled that the board would have to redo the vote, and allow for public input this time. So they did--in Purchase, N.Y., purposefully far away from New York City, where LICH patients and workers live.

Then the New York City Council unanimously passed a resolution requiring SUNY to keep LICH open, and SUNY responded with a letter promising to expand their search for a new hospital operator and withdrew the closure plan.

And still they continue to attack LICH. Having lost in the courts, SUNY is trying to create facts on the ground, even trying to shut down LICH's residency program. SUNY officials are saying to anyone who will listen that doctors and nurses are leaving LICH voluntarily, leading to understaffing and dangerous conditions--a convenient excuse for closing LICH in the name of patient safety.

But according to Semente:

You know in January when they first announced this, John Williams, the SUNY Downstate president, told the New York Times that the hospital would shut itself as word got out what their plan was. Staff would bolt from the hospital and patients would stop coming.

That did not happen. And it will not happen. We said from day one that we will not abandon our patients or this hospital. We have not abandoned them. There has been no mass exodus, there is no short staffing, and the patients keep coming. That is a testament to the dedication of the staff and the need for the hospital here. So the hospital was not emptying itself out--now they're taking action to make sure it does get emptied.

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SUNY PROMOTES LICH workers' dedication--when it's convenient to them. The news section of LICH's website links to an inspiring video of LICH workers braving floods and staying at work for days on end to save lives during Hurricane Sandy. There are no videos or articles about SUNY's plans to close LICH or the struggle to save it, however.

Not only is LICH a nationally high-ranking hospital, it is also a historic teaching hospital. LICH was the first hospital to make bedside teaching a standard part of the curriculum, and LICH faculty were the first to introduce the stethoscope and early use of anesthesia.

Besides the past, there's also the future. As Jeff Sterabone, member of the Cobble Hill Neighborhood Association, pointed out:

If you turn around, you will see that we are on a very large embankment. There is a good 40-foot drop to the water. This hospital will never flood, unlike some of the hospitals in Manhattan that flooded during Sandy. So when you think about what the future medical needs of New York City will be in light of climate change, we need hospitals at high elevations. This is probably the highest elevation hospital in Brooklyn. It will never flood. This is where a hospital needs to be.

And then there's the very real present. If SUNY closes LICH, it will leave a huge health care desert. The hospital serves major areas of Brooklyn, including Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Gowanus, Brooklyn Heights and Red Hook, the last of which has already been designated as a health care professional shortage area by the federal Department of Health and Human Services. LICH averaged 90 percent occupancy throughout 2012; clearly, Brooklyn needs LICH.

And it's not just about LICH. The struggle to keep LICH open comes at a key moment for New York City, health care and labor. For-profit hospitals are chomping at the bit to open up in the city--in fact, the group that SUNY has brought in to run LICH is the same that has privatized Detroit's hospitals and spawned huge Medicare fraud cases by bleeding patients' wallets and lives.

We may never know how many people these greedy for-profit hospital operators have made sicker, or forced into bankruptcy, or even let die--but hospital workers and patients know that if LICH closes, it will only add to the toll.

LICH hospital workers and patients are making a stand. If they win, they will strike a victory not just for LICH. They will inspire the struggles for equal access to quality health care throughout the city and the country. They will prove that workers and unions can fight and win using strategies of active rank-and-file participation and social-justice unionism. And they will change history for every family who will have a loved one saved, cared for, or born at LICH.

"We're patient advocates, and we are not going to let patients die because SUNY has made this decision," said NYSNA president Jill Furillo.

Patient Susan Raboy vocalized what has driven so many people to fight for months to keep LICH open: "Last year, LICH saved my life. If LICH saved me, I'll do my best to save LICH."

Peter Rugh contributed to this article.