Court Temporarily Halts Plan to Close a Brooklyn Hospital
The New York Times, 2/25/13
Published: February 21, 2013
A state judge has temporarily halted plans to close the financially ailing Long Island College Hospital, giving a victory to hospital workers who say that its closing would be devastating to community health care.
The decision, announced on Thursday, was based on a petition by two unions and a group of doctors at the hospital seeking to invalidate a Feb. 8 vote by the State University of New York’s board to close the hospital, in a gentrified neighborhood of northern Brooklyn.
The hospital, known as LICH, is run by SUNY Downstate Medical Center, which is also in financial trouble.
The complaint said the SUNY trustees had violated the state’s Open Meetings Law by holding a private committee meeting before they voted, which was in effect an illegal meeting because a quorum of trustees were present.
It said the trustees apparently discussed their rationale for closing the hospital in that private meeting, while being circumspect at a subsequent public session, which the complaint described as “perfunctory.”
The complaint said the vote “triggered a series of irreparable harms — including the diversion of patients from LICH’s emergency room and an apparent decrease in hospital admissions — that are causing the de facto closing of LICH.”
The judge, Justice Betsy Barros of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, set a hearing on the complaint for March 7. Her order stopped Downstate from moving forward with a closing plan that it filed on Wednesday with the State Health Department, which could itself block the plan. The order also stopped Downstate from sending out 90-day warning notices to about 2,000 workers who could be laid off.
As for the workers, “right now, they’re feeling validated,” Jill Furillo, executive director of the New York State Nurses Association, said Thursday. The group filed the complaint in conjunction with the health care workers’ union, 1199 S.E.I.U. “The whole process that the SUNY board of trustees used seemed to be a violation of what democratic principles are.”
Robert Bellafiore, a spokesman for Downstate, said Thursday that the trustees were not required to vote on the closing, so the lawsuit was asking the court to invalidate a vote that had been merely “symbolic.” He said that Downstate’s president, Dr. John Williams, had the authority to seek state approval to close the hospital himself and that the trustees had held a vote just to show their support.
Richard Seltzer, a lawyer for the petitioners, said the vote seemed more than discretionary, and as evidence cited a Feb. 12 memorandum from Dr. Williams to LICH employees in which he said the trustees had “approved my recommendation” to close the hospital.
In defending their decision, Downstate officials have said that the hospital’s losses of $4 million a month threaten the entire Downstate operation, including its medical school.
Opponents have accused Downstate of wanting to cannibalize LICH by selling off its prime real estate, some with harbor views.
Much of the debate has focused on whether people who live near the hospital are going to more renowned facilities in Manhattan.
In response to repeated requests, the State Health Department has said it could not immediately provide records of which neighborhoods LICH patients come from.
But records obtained from Continuum Health Partners, which previously ran the hospital, show that 36 percent of its patients come from the surrounding neighborhoods of Downtown Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope; 23 percent come from the more distant communities of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights; and even fewer come from East Flatbush-Flatbush, Greenpoint-Williamsburg, East New York and other more distant neighborhoods.
Ms. Furillo said the need for the hospital could be seen in its patient count Thursday: 269 patients, but only 240 staffed beds, leaving patients waiting to be admitted.
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