By Mary Alice Miller
As the state budget dealing draws near, State Senator Kevin Parker is adamant about his support for the future of SUNY Downstate Medical Center and University Hospital. “I, myself, have committed to vote ‘no’ on every single part of the budget if, in fact, this issue is not resolved by the time the budget is brought to the floor,” said Parker. “I am going to encourage my colleagues not to vote for it.”
Lost in all the recent public clamor about the future of Long Island College Hospital is the very real risk of SUNY Downstate becoming unrecognizable, or even closing. But, according to Sen. Parker, not without a fight. “Downstate Medical Center is the Harvard of public medical education, literally in the country,” Parker proudly declared. “Downstate is an elite institution, and a vital provoder of quality health care.”
A few weeks ago, the SUNY Board took a vote to close LICH which, two years ago, became entangled with Downstate under former president Dr. LaRosa. LICH, a voluntary (private) hospital, had been hemorrhaging millions annually for more than a decade. It didn’t take long before it became obvious that LICH could take SUNY Downstate Medical Center and University Hospital down with it. Last week, a judicial stay had at least temporarily prevented LICH from closing. Sen. Parker is mindful of the more than 800 1199SEIU workers at LICH and the potential to “essentially unemploy them during the end of the greatest economic contraction in this country’s history”, said Parker.
He is also concerned about SUNY Downstate “hanging on the fringe”.
The SUNY Board, under the leadership of h. Carl McCall, has committed themselves to keeping both the medical center and the hospital open, said Parker, and has come up with $75 million in immediate financing. “We commend them for that money they are lending to make things go right,” said Parker.
The senator has two additional concerns.
For this fiscal year (2013-14), which starts on April 1, Downstate needs about $100 million. They are going to need that money for about two years in order to stabilize the hospital while a new plan is developed.
“In the context of that, the governor has refused to meet with elected officials in the area to have a significant discussion about this,” said Parker. “We have known about this issue for about 8 months. And for this 8 months, we have been making requests to the governor to sit down and have a conversation. Those requests have been denied up until this point. It is disturbing to me that duly elected representatives of the state government cannot get a meeting with the governor about such an important issue.”
Normally, the fiscal year in the State of New York is April 1 to March 31. But, according to Parker, because of holidays and such, they would like to close the budget by March 1 and get the votes all done by March 22. “This is crunchtime for us in terms of dealing with this important issue,” he said.
Downstate’s immediate fiscal problem is the institution is losing somewhere between $7-8 million a month. Sen. Parker commends the leadership of SUNY Chairman McCall and the new president of Downstate, Dr. John Williams, for producing an aggressive plan to restructure the institution. “I think there is a plan to turn the hospital around,” said Parker. “But none of that can happen unless we are able to talk to the governor about the extra money we need.”
Sen. Parker is very concerned about a “pilot program to do some privatization” embedded within the governor’s preliminary budget. Parker said he has not heard from the governor about what that privatization is. “I am not voting to privatize Downstate. There is no circumstance in which I think that Downstate should be privatized,” said Parker. “To turn over the operation or any parts of the operation of Downstate Medical Center or University Hospital to private companies to run it simply does not make any sense, either economically or fiscally.”
Parker explained further: “As the governor talked about economic development and job creation, as he told about New York being open for business, you can’t tell me that upstate New York is open for business and you are willing to let this many jobs go in New York City. I am going to vote ‘no’ on anything that puts either the viability of the hospital and its workers or the quality of care at risk.”
Converting SUNY Downstate into its own autonomous public authority is one idea Sen. Parker is willing to explore with Dr. Williams. “Outside of having a conversation with the governor and getting his short-term support for keeping this institution open as a public institution,” said Parker. “These other proposals frankly don’t mean anything.”
Downstate is the state medical school for all of lower New York. It’s not just about Brooklyn. It’s about NYC, Long Island and the Hudson Valley. This is the downstate facility. It is both a medical school and a teaching hospital. This is the largest producer of Black and Latino medical professionals in the country.
Annually, Downstate produces about 800 medical professionals – doctors, nurses and others. Most stay in the NYC area, many of them in Brooklyn. When they do their residency, most of them do it at Downstate obviously because it is right there.
“If we lost the hospital then we would have to find a place for all of these medical professionals to do their residencies,” said Parker. “Over the past couple of years, first of all you lost a bunch of hospitals – St. Mary’s, Cumberland, Caledonia, just lost LICH… Interfaith is on the verge of closing. There are simply not enough facilities for people to go do their residencies and the training they need to be fully-fledged doctors and nurses. From a teaching perspective, we need the hospital facility.”
“When you look at all the hospitals that are closing, they are all private hospitals,” he said. “If private hospitals cannot keep themselves open across town at LICH, how are they going to take care of downstate? Privatizing, essentially for me, means closing it. I am not going to vote for that.”
Parker continued to press his case, saying: “Downstate is too big to fail.” It’s the fourth-largest employer in the borough of Brooklyn. Kings is the largest county in the country population-wise, and is the fourth-largest city in the entire country after the rest of New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago.
For the past decade, SUNY Downstate Biotech Incubator has been researching robotics, nano-medicine and biomedical technology. “That is going to have a lot of implications. both for the kind of care and the types of advanced procedures that can be done at Downstate, but also for increased economic opportunities for those involved in biomedicine,” said Parker. “A lot of significant medical breakthroughs have happened right here in Brooklyn, such as the use of nanites, which are microscopic robots. That is a vital resource that we cannot afford to lose, particularly now when so much of our economy is based on stem: science, technology, engineering and math.”