‘Wrong, wrong, wrong’: Healthcare workers, pols rally against possible SUNY Downstate closure

'Wrong, wrong, wrong'; healthcare workers, electeds rally against possible SUNY Downstate closure
Healthcare workers, union reps and elected officials rally against possible SUNY Downstate closure on Feb. 29.
Photo by Isabel Beer

Healthcare workers and elected officials rallied Thursday outside of SUNY Downstate Medical Center in the latest protest against a “transformative plan” which could see SUNY shutter the East Flatbush hospital.

Joined by fellow elected officials, Brooklyn faith leaders, numerous union representatives and hundreds of healthcare workers, New York State Sen. Zellnor Myrie renewed calls to keep SUNY Downstate open to serve Central Brooklyn residents — many of whom are working-class people of color.

Citing a state study on healthcare disparities in Brooklyn released on Feb. 1, Myrie criticized the plan to close the hospital while the surrounding community experiences a healthcare crisis.

“What lives do we have to continue to surrender at the altar for y’all? We’re sick of it, we deserve better,” Myrie said at the Feb. 29 rally. “The facts already tell us this and this isn’t the facts that we have made up here on this stage. This is a Department of Health-owned report. They say if you live in this neighborhood, if you live in this ZIP code, your healthcare quality is below average. So now you come to us with the data and the information and you say our solution is to close down, not to provide you with the resources but to take the resources away.”

'Wrong, wrong, wrong'; healthcare workers, electeds rally against possible SUNY Downstate closure
Healthcare workers and elected officials rally against the possible SUNY Downstate closure. Photo by Isabel Beer

A financial crisis at SUNY Downstate

SUNY Downstate has been financially beleaguered for at least the past decade. The institution reported a near $160 million deficit in 2022 after serving as a COVID-only hospital during the worst of the pandemic. Additionally, the building’s structural integrity is weakened to a point where it would cost SUNY over $4 billion to repair. 

“Downstate faces significant financial challenges, with years of financial and facility emergencies plaguing this essential and historic institution,” said SUNY Chancellor John B. King Jr. in a statement last month. “Fewer than half of the hospital’s available beds are in use on a regular basis, and Downstate’s hospital faces an infrastructure crisis and due to its age routinely floods, has temperature control issues, and many other limitations. We cannot allow this status quo to continue.”

These myriad of issues led Governor Kathy Hochul and SUNY to announce a “transformative plan” with the goal to keep the facility afloat. While it includes over $300 million in capital investments, it also plans to relocate staff and patients to nearby hospitals — like NYC Health + Hospitals/Kings County — for continued care.

An additional $200 million will be allocated to facilitate and utilize community engagement in planning for Downstate’s future, with the public envisioning process beginning the week of Feb. 28. 

Critics of the plan say that, while it isn’t an explicit shutdown of the facility, it is a closure at its core. If the plan moves forward, SUNY Downstate would no longer operate out of its East Flatbush location.

“Brooklyn needs this hospital”

Downstate remains the only medical facility in Brooklyn which performs kidney transplants, and it remains unclear where current Downstate kidney and diabetes patients will have access to centralized and affordable continued care.

“Brooklyn needs this hospital,” Dr. Joel Gernsheimer, a Downstate emergency physician, told Brooklyn Paper at the rally. “We need not just the ER or the clinics, we need the inpatient services because we have a lot of sick patients and we don’t have a place to put them and Kings County where I also work doesn’t have a place to put them… [Downstate] is the only transplant service in Brooklyn and we have a big dialysis population and I am concerned that they may not get that help.”

SUNY Downstate Emergency physician, Dr. Joel Gernsheimer, protests potential medical center closure.
SUNY Downstate Emergency physician Dr. Joel Gernsheimer protests potential medical center closure.Photo by Isabel Beer

Additionally, SUNY Downstate’s plan would see potential workforce reductions of the institution’s staff, many of whom are represented by the United University Professions union. According to an individual familiar with the situation, the plan would see about 10 to 20 percent of the 1,725 current UUP Downstate employees lose their jobs.

“I think back to a couple months ago and the chancellor [King Jr.] called me to tell me that there was this plan that he had put together in secret for six months,” said UUP President Fred Kowal. “No consultation with any of us, no consultation with the community we call home and that is wrong, people. We know what’s wrong and worst of all perhaps is that he’s not alone in embracing this plan. He proposed it, but the governor chose it and chose to impose it which is wrong, wrong, wrong.”

Also at the rally were numerous significant faith leaders who came to advocate for the respective communities they serve and who rely on Downstate. Among them was legendary American civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton.

“Whatever needs to be done from the state to the federal level, needs to be done,” Sharpton said. “But we will not tolerate your shutting down Downstate.”

Rebbe Eli Cohen, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, emphasized how dire the SUNY and Hochul’s plan for Downstate would be, and how the community had already been deeply impacted by hospital closures.

“We know about the overcrowding that’s in the emergency room right here in Kings County,” said Cohen. “There’s no overcrowding in the emergency room in Kingsbrook ‘cause that’s gone, no overcrowding in the emergency room in Interfaith because that’s gone. You point in any direction and those beds are being taken away, so we’re going to have even crazier overcrowding in our hospitals, in our emergency rooms and there’s gonna be no place to support the wonderful specialties that are being provided for in this hospital.”

Despite the prospect of SUNY Downstate’s imminent closure, speakers at the rally were still deeply invested in fighting for the hospital and the community it serves.

“Let’s develop a plan together and whatever plan that is must result in better healthcare and better infrastructure and a better product than what we have,” New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said at the rally. “… And the way you do that is keeping Downstate open and making sure people have the healthcare that we need. And if you don’t do it, don’t come back for election time.”