Interfaith hospital is a lifeline

February 21, 2014

Union nurses and other hospital workers have kept up the struggle to keep Interfaith open. In this roundtable discussion, seven Interfaith union members spoke with Sean Petty about the issues driving their campaign to keep Interfaith open. The participants included RNs Charmayne Saddler-Walker, Ari Moma and Julannah Gregory, members of the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA); and Michelle Ned, Jeannette Harper, Deana Jones and Lesline Cummings, members of 1199SEIU Healthcare Workers East.

WHY DO you all think Interfaith is being threatened with closure?

Ari: One single word--mismanagement. That's why we're closing--mismanagement of funds. The mismanagement is coupled with the changing reimbursement rate in Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement. That's one of the things that has really hurt us. The patients we get here are basically Medicaid patients, so they reduced our source of income, but for us, our operational cost is still the same.

Charmayne: One of the things that affects it also is that there's no accountability. Upper management--the Board--does not think it has to be accountable for expenditures or revenue. It's like, "I do what I please," and the end result is that we're in this situation we're in.

WHAT DO you think would be the consequences for this community if Interfaith were to close?

Charmayne: This is the only hospital in central Brooklyn. And if this hospital should close--and I'm optimistic it won't--the community will suffer. People will die because it's a right for every individual in the community that someone lives in to have access to health care, to have access to an emergency room--and not only to an emergency room, but to a fully functional hospital.

Interfaith workers and their supporters rally against the threat of the medical center's closure
Interfaith workers and their supporters rally against the threat of the medical center's closure

Residents in these areas depend on Medicare and Medicaid. And to my understanding, even if a person is ill, but is able to get to other hospitals, there are a lot of hospitals that will not give them care. The more "prestigious" hospitals, they don't really want Medicare and Medicaid patients. So if we really look at it from a humanitarian point of view, we need this hospital. There's no question, there's no doubt in my mind, closing this hospital shouldn't even be considered. It's vital, it's the last lifeline. It's the blood that runs through our health care system. This hospital is needed, not just wanted.

Ari: If the hospital closed, we have to think about the ripple effect it's going to have around here. When you look around central Brooklyn, you have Interfaith. After that, you're talking about Woodhall, Brooklyn Hospital, Wyckoff--and they're far away. To get from one point to another, it's going to take about 20 to 30 minutes, and when you're talking about an emergency case, you're talking about a life-and-death situation.

It's going to affect everybody because we are still at full capacity, and most of the hospitals around here are still operating at their full capacity, so if we close, people are going to stay longer in the emergency room before they even get the access care they need.

Michelle: In addition, there's a domino effect. What will happen to the people outside of the hospital that are vendors, the people who have stores and shops and restaurants that depend on the income from the staff here? We have 1,500 employees here, and these people depend on this spending to keep their businesses afloat.

Deana: We have to also remember that we have a housing program for mentally ill patients who have nowhere to go. If this hospital is closed, a lot of these people will be on the street.

Julannah: It's inhumane. It's an atrocity, and the community doesn't deserve that. As nurses, we're advocating on behalf of the community and this community of color, which is already faced with inequities in health care. As Ms. Walker said earlier, a lot of these so-called "prestigious" hospitals don't want Medicaid patients, because they're already stigmatized.

Michelle: In addition, Interfaith hospital has services for this community that other hospitals don't offer. For example, we have a "safe haven" here. In the event that a mother does not want her child, she can take the child to this institution, the child will be safe, the authorities will be called, and that child will have a place to live. We have a dialysis center here, and we have cardiology and various other departments that make this hospital a full-service hospital.

WHEN THEY announced that Interfaith might close, was there any plan to replace the services that would be lost?

Julannah: They were trying to outsource our work and give our clinics to other hospitals, and they also wanted to create what is called a "medical mall" model, where they have a dialysis unit controlled by one person, cardiology by another person, and so on and so forth.

The people that they were bringing into the picture are Wall Street gurus who are all about profit. Last year, NYSNA had a convention where we discussed Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plan to introduce for-profit health care in New York state. NYSNA stopped this bill, but I think it's going to resurface.

Just to make an analogy with the school system, it's like charter schools. They want the parents and the general public to believe that it's a better alternative; however, it's all about profit. In charter schools, the teachers are not unionized for the most part, parents have to sign a contract, and they're very punitive, and a lot of your rights are taken away compared to being in a traditional high school.

I see a correlation there, and it's part of a larger agenda to break the backs of the unions. They allowed the traditional public schools to fail, and they allowed these hospitals to fail in a similar fashion. It's not about saving any money; it's about putting more money in Corporate America's pockets while destroying the unions and disenfranchising the underserved.

But this isn't just any other business--this is human lives we're dealing with. It's not like owning a condo that you can play with, redesign it, maybe sell timeshares or whatever. You cannot play with people's lives, and this is where the buck stops.

WHAT DO you think helped you successfully keep this hospital open for the last two years?

Lesline: We organized a lot of rallies, we made leaflets, we went to the churches and the politicians, and we went to Albany to speak our minds. And we had [Mayor Bill De Blasio]. He supported us a lot. Also [Public Advocate Letitia "Tish" James] supported us. So we're still in the fight.

Ari: Also, we realized that this fight is not something that we can fight individually or separately, so we tried to unify all the unions. We have 1199SEIU, NYSNA, and the Committee of Interns and Residents (CIR/SEIU Healthcare). So we formed a coalition, and we started working together and looked to how we can get the hospital back. At that point, management was really fighting against us, and they were ready to close the hospital. At the end of the day, when we finally unified ourselves, we reached out to the community, and they were very important in the rallies and actions.

We got the community involved, we got all the politicians, and we started having weekly meetings to discuss what we have to do and who we have to reach out to. Also, we became more political. We looked for all the politicians who would support us and make sure that we worked to elect them so that they can carry our banner.

Most people thought that Long Island College Hospital and Interfaith were going to be closed easily, but when the community joined forces with the Interfaith staff and the politicians, we became a big force. And the powers that be are still wondering, "How did this come about?" That's the most important thing that has kept us going up to now.

AT ONE point, the Interfaith CEO tried to close the hospital by diverting ambulances away from Interfaith. How did you respond to that?

Jeannette: We, the congregation of more than 200 employees, walked to the CEO's office, and I called him on his cell phone. He agreed to meet, but requested that only myself and a police officer be allowed to come inside and meet. We asked him to please reverse the diversion of ambulances, and he said he couldn't do it.

While we were in there, our members got real loud, angry and frustrated, and started beating on his door, knocking loudly and saying that he had to go, that he had to leave. The police were called, and they asked us to ask our members to walk back to the cafeteria, which they did, and Sullivan was escorted by NYPD out of the institution.

Michelle: By this time, we had a wide selection of media here at the hospital--from NY1 to Channel 11. When you looked up, there were four helicopters in the air. So we had some publicity.

Interfaith employees decided to take a stand at this time. We said that we were no longer going to allow decision-making and the mismanagement of funds to be detrimental to the staff, to the patients and to this institution. So we took action ourselves, and we escorted him behind the police officers and watched him leave--and made sure he would not come back.

Julannah: What enraged the workers here is that he was putting our patient population at risk. That's number one. And number two is that he acted alone without the consent of the Board or anyone else. So that is another form of abuse of power. This is what we spoke about earlier. They feel like anything goes, and they can just do whatever they want to do. On that particular day, we made our voices heard. We stood up, and in unity, we said, "Enough."

Michelle: After the CEO left, the media started doing interviews. They were interested in our story. One of the reasons that I personally believed they were interested is because we have created a model for challenging all these other Brooklyn hospitals that may think that they can do the same thing that they have done here at Interfaith. So other institutions will be looking at what Interfaith employees have done and think a second and third time before they think they can do the same thing.

Charmayne: The decision to divert ambulances and close Interfaith was an insult. It would have been such an insult to people of color. It was on the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. So I don't know if he wanted to show his "supremacy," but what he failed to understand is that we're not living in the 18th century anymore. In less than three hours, we realized that, to get this reversed, we had to do what we had to do. And that's why we're in the building right now, and Interfaith is still standing.

YOU MENTIONED that the occupation of the CEO's office happened in the lead up to Martin Luther King Day. I also understand that a local theater company was performing a play that very night, and for a week or two prior, called The Death of Bessie Smith and written during the era of the civil rights movement. Can you tell me more about the play, and how it has figured into this struggle?

Julannah: How I look at that play is that closing Interfaith means going back to the time of The Death of Bessie Smith. Closing Interfaith is going against Dr. King's dream of having one America with equality. As it is today, there are a lot of inequities among people of color in terms of health care.

This play is basically saying that this lady was injured because she was in a car accident, and when she went to an emergency room in an all-white hospital, they looked at her with scorn and didn't treat her. She went to another predominantly white hospital, and the same thing occurred. Subsequently, this person died.

Bessie Smith was an entertainer, she was a celebrity in those days, but because of the color of her skin, they didn't realize who she was until afterwards, and she was not given treatment in time to save her life. This is the message that we are sending about what could happen here if we continue to let this trend in health care develop.

Ari: For The Death of Bessie Smith, I want to credit to Jeff Strabone. Jeff is the chairman of the community board in Cobble Hill area and chairman of the board of the New Brooklyn Theater. He has been a fighter. We are fighting alongside him to keep Long Island College Hospital open. He decided to bring the play here because what is happening at Interfaith is an analogy to what happened to Bessie Smith.

HOW DO you think the themes of the play are connected to the fight to save Interfaith? And do people feel that the play has made a difference in the fight to keep the hospital open?

Charmayne: Although we have come a long way, we still have a thing called prejudice, and you have a class structure so that a person with money will get the services they need because they can pay for it. To compare Bessie Smith and Interfaith, Bessie Smith was coming from the South to the North. Interfaith is in an area where people are underserved. Bessie Smith was on a journey and should have been taken care of irrespective of where she lived. Whatever happened to her, she should have been taken care of.

This is like Interfaith. People, the community, the residents, they are at home, and it doesn't matter what happened to them, they should have a safety net, where they can receive health care. And then there's color. She was Black. The people who are suffering now are Black. The only difference was that she was on a literal journey. We are on an imaginary journey to make sure that my generation, the generation after me, the generation of my children's children will have the same access to health care.

AFTER THE play is performed, I know there have been meetings where you have discussions about the play and how it's connected to fight at Interfaith. People from the community can attend for free. Has that brought people into this fight?

Julannah: I think using different forms of communication has been an excellent way to increase awareness. When things are dramatized, it has more of an impact, and you can actually put yourself in their shoes. "That could have been me"--or a family member or a friend. We're showing that it could very much happen, because we are again seeing a lot of the same stuff that we fought for many years ago, many decades ago. In light of the Dr. King celebration, this play came together at the right place and at the right time.

We are using Interfaith as a model, as a catalyst, so it could spread across the United States. It's no longer just about health care. It's a human rights issue. We've heard story after story after story. People dying out in the streets, people dying in emergency rooms, it's like we're just piling up. Bessie Smith or myself could have been up in Manhattan in one of those prestigious hospitals and faced the same situation.

I personally had an accident in Pennsylvania, and when they found out that I was a nurse, the treatment changed altogether. They discharged me in the middle of the night, and it was very dark. And when I started to speak, they started to realize that this is someone that knows something.

So people are going to suffer, they are going to die, and this is a salient point to me. To pinpoint the main idea: health care is under attack, but not only health care. They are targeting communities of color, because look at where the hospitals are being closed.

Charmayne: Watching that play, I was listening keenly to the response of the audience, and because it's art and because the way it is performed, the audience can relate to it. It's the same thing in society. When a Black person dies, it's just a Black person, but when a person who we think has wealth or has a Caucasian name, it's like, "Oh, we have lost a wonderful person."

No. The same way my stomach, my belly, moves as a mother is the same way you should feel about everyone else, irrespective of color. So we have come to the point when we at Interfaith are telling the wider society, nationally, that guess what, everybody should be treated equally. And it's in the Constitution that everyone is equal.

Michelle: They are using a number of ways to undermine hospitals and to make sure that Black people do not get the right care. If we get low reimbursement, if we don't have the right doctors or whatever in this institution, what's going to happen? People are going to die.

Deana: I have some patients that left this hospital and went to seek care in Manhattan. Three or four of them came back and told me how badly they were treated. They told them stuff like "You're not that sick," or "We do not take Medicaid, so you should go to your neighborhood hospital." A

fter hearing that, the young ladies and gentleman also said, "You know what? I thank God for you all being here because when I was sick, I thought that when I went to the white hospitals, or the prestigious hospitals, that I would be treated better, but I was thrown out and had to come back to the same hospital. So I thank you all for the treatment and thank you all for being here." So this is a perfect example of why we need this hospital in central Brooklyn.

THERE HAVE been more than 12 hospitals closed in New York City in the last 10 years or so. What do you see as the overall solution to the hospital crisis and the closing of these hospitals?

Julannah: I think we should approach it from the federal standpoint. If we see it as a human rights issue and our rights are protected under the Constitution, then we should take this to the legal system to stop them from indiscriminately closing hospitals. So we have to take it to court where we put a stop to it.

Unless we take them to court and say, listen, the community needs support, and we see that this community is at risk, their income is low, they are underserved, whatever term you want to use, and you can not just close hospitals like that. You have to have good and sufficient reasons, and you need to try to make that hospital better and even expand it so we can bring in more patients, instead of just closing the hospital.

So I think what we need is legal action in addition to what I endorse with the current mayor, the health care authority, for greater oversight with the spending of the budget and the management. But it should be a constitutional right of every citizen in America that you can't just close hospitals and deny basic health care. My point is that we are dealing with human beings, and we have to protect lives. If we cannot advocate for our patients and the community, then what good is it?

So we have to make sure that we are at the front of this fight, and we have to organize in the proper manner to garner support from everyone. We want support from the transit workers, because they are part of the community. We want the support of the school system, the doctors, the lawyers, the bus drivers. Every single facet of society has to realize that health care is a human rights issue, and we are going to take it there. By whatever means necessary, we are going to do it. This is how I think we are going to curtail and eventually eliminate these closures.

And it's ludicrous to think that you are going to create "health care malls" by selling off clinics to this firm or that firm, by privatizing health care. Then who is going to control our health? The same people on Wall Street who screwed up the whole economy? If they somehow got a clean slate after screwing up, then we need a clean slate for all public hospitals. So we are saying to the powers that be and to the governor, "You gave Wall Street their break, and we need our break as well."

Charmayne: Another thing we need is a law that limits the amount of money the rich hospitals like Columbia Presbyterian and Mount Sinai receive from people like the Koch Brothers. If any one of those places wasn't getting all those big donations, everybody would be treated fairly.

Deana: The problem with the Koch brothers is they are trying to destroy all the unions. But we cannot have that, because you know what? Labor rights!

WHAT IS the next step in the fight at Interfaith, and what do you think it's going to take to keep this hospital open going forward?

Jeannette: The decision right now is in the hands of the bankruptcy judge. So as of February 12, we'll know if we have to go back to the streets again shouting for DeBlasio and Cuomo and Schumer and Sebelius. Because if we have to, we are willing to stand up again and fight for our patients. They are like our families. I know our patients get excellent care at Interfaith Medical Center because I work in the emergency room. So if we have to get up and fight, we will do it again.

Michelle: If the bankruptcy court says that Interfaith closes, then unfortunately we'll have to go into the mode called Occupy Interfaith. We are not going to take the words from an appointed judge or from anyone in that courtroom that says Interfaith will close under those circumstances. We say, as employees of Interfaith Hospital, "Hell no!" We will not allow them to close us, and we will do everything in our power to make sure that this message is sent.

Charmayne: We are telling Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, who is withholding federal money from Interfaith, that she needs to understand that the money that is coming from the government is our money, it's tax money, and it's our money. So she needs to understand that we are talking about ensuring that the lives of American citizens are saved. We are not animals; we are human beings. So release the money. If you don't release the money, we will be coming to Washington. We will make this international news.

Julannah: Do not underestimate people power. We would like to invite Occupy Wall Street to come and network with us and give us some strategies to sort out when we occupy this place. Then we will send a message loud and clear. And I'm very, very optimistic that we here at Interfaith are going to be the model throughout this country. Like I said before, it's a human rights issue, and the current trend of medical apartheid in health care has to stop.

Transcription by Meredith Reese and Karen Domínguez Burke

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