Hills & Gardens
By Trudy Whitman
Having followed in 2009-2010 the course of the swine flu, or H1N1 virus, through our neck of the woods with the help of Long Island College Hospital’s Dr. Tucker Woods, head of the emergency department, I thought readers would be interested in how this season’s flu compared. So I contacted Dr. Woods and began writing my column, leading with information he gave me.
That story line was deep-sixed on February 9, when an article in The New York Times revealed that two nights before, Continuum Health Partners, the network to which LICH currently belongs, had been informed that New York State grants were being withheld to give the new administration in Albany time to study the state’s Medicaid program. The promised grants would have allowed for LICH’s divorce from Continuum and a union with SUNY/Downstate. Without the grants, it was certain that LICH would close. Here’s the back story: In 2008, when Continuum announced that it was closing LICH’s pediatrics and obstetrics departments because the community hospital was in a deep financial hole, there was uproar. Private citizens and elected officials got to work lobbying Gov. David Paterson and the appropriate government agencies, maintaining that the threatened departments were essential to life in downtown Brooklyn.
A plan was put forth — an intricate and many-faceted arrangement but one that stakeholders firmly believed would ultimately work — to merge LICH with SUNY/Downstate. Although there were worries at both Brooklyn healthcare institutions about layoffs that commonly accompany such mergers, only a few i ’s remained undotted before $62 million — $40 million for Downstate and $22 million for LICH — in HEAL (Health Care Efficiency and Affordability Law) grants were to be released by the state in order to make the union happen.
But the February 9 Times article quoted Continuum’s CEO, Stanley Brezenoff, as saying that the LICH grant was seriously in question, and that the hospital was currently “running on fumes” and would run out of cash next month. This would force the beginning of bankruptcy proceedings, Brezenoff advised. In fact, he said, he was already drafting a closing plan for LICH.
Assemblywoman Joan Millman played a leading role in promoting the merger plan. Reached in her Brooklyn office, Millman told this newspaper that all of the elected officials who fought so hard for LICH remained “committed to seeing that the money stays on the table and that the governor’s office knows how absolutely important this is, not only for the health of the community, but for economic development as well.”
LICH operates under one type of governance, and as a state healthcare institution, SUNY Downstate operates under another. This gave rise to many of the complications during merger negotiations. But a union of the hospitals would be beneficial to both, Millman said. LICH would remain open with all its departments intact, and Downstate would have a site to place the many doctors it trains. “There are very few teaching sites available at hospitals in Brooklyn,” the assemblywoman explained.
Following the bombshell dropped by Albany last week, many of the neighborhood’s politicians who had put their heads together with others to help formulate the merger agreement, issued statements supporting the value of LICH. But it cannot be said that our electeds were overly optimistic — at least for a quick resolution, and time was of the essence.
Late Friday afternoon, February 11, Assemblywoman Millman contacted this newspaper again, sounding more positive. She explained that some of Gov. Cuomo’s aides had agreed to meet with Brooklyn officials to discuss LICH that evening. This was good news, indeed, but no one expected that by early Saturday morning, the listservs and blogs would be buzzing with the news that the grants were secured.
In a press release issued by LICH on February 14, the hospital thanked many for their “steadfast support,” including the contingent of elected representatives who met with the governor’s people last Friday — Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez, NYC Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Borough President Marty Markowitz, State Senators Daniel Squadron and Velmanette Montgomery, Assemblywoman Joan Millman, and City Council Members Brad Lander and Steve Levin.
Now that the bullet has been dodged, I’d like to go back to my story about the E.D. and the flu. Dr. Woods said that the 2010-2011 flu “did not pack too much of a punch” and that most patients were treated and released. Moreover, he added, this year’s “flu shot is sensitive to the strain that is out there.”
However, the E.D. remains a very busy place this winter, according to Dr. Woods. Cold temperatures bring in homeless people for treatment, and the slippery streets and sidewalks have “triggered a bunch of orthopedic injuries.”
It’s comforting to know that whatever weather New York City will dish out next winter, the hospital — no matter what the awnings say that hang over its entry ways — will be there to catch us when we fall.