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LICH closure proposal withdrawn by SUNY Downstate

BY DENISE ROMANO AND HEATHER J. CHIN

This afternoon, SUNY Downstate Medical Center withdrew its closure plan for Long Island College Hospital (LICH) from the New York State Department of Health (DOH), stating that it would instead continue to look for a healthcare service provider within the neighborhoods served by LICH — Cobble Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens, and Downtown Brooklyn — potentially including another hospital operator.

The announcement marks a victory for residents of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens and Downtown Brooklyn, who, along with LICH nurses and physicians and area politicians, have waged an impassioned ongoing campaign to keep their community hospital open, staging protests and rallies, and bussing LICH supporters to closure hearings throughout the city and state.

“This is an incredible victory for Brooklyn patients,” declared Jill Furillo, RN, executive director of the New York State Nurses Association, in a statement. “We want to thank Governor Cuomo for helping us find solutions to Brooklyn’s healthcare crisis.”

George Gresham, president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, echoed this pride and sentiment, stating that “From the beginning, our members worked with nurses, doctors, neighbors, patient advocates and elected officials and did everything in our power to find alternative solutions that would keep LICH’s vital medical services and good jobs in the community [and] this victory proves the grassroots strength we have when we unite for quality healthcare, and we will continue to work hard to ensure LICH remains open and thriving for generations to come.”

According to Downstate President Dr. John F. Williams, Jr., the organization — which purchased LICH in 2011 — simply decided that “the current legal proceedings prohibit [the] dialogue” necessary to any workable plan.

“We are withdrawing the closure plan so we can work with the state and other stakeholders on a sustainability plan for Brooklyn’s only medical school and to ensure quality medical care throughout the borough.”

Williams noted that “the financial conditions at LICH remain unchanged. LICH’s continued financial losses still threaten the viability of Downstate Medical and our world-renowned medical school.”

SUNY and Downstate must create and submit the Sustainability Plan to the state DOH and State Division of the Budget for approval by June 1, 2013, with implementation to begin by June 15.

The new state budget gives SUNY a new and comprehensive set of tools for Downstate to use to restructure itself.

Toomas Sorra, MD, president of Concerned Physicians of LICH, is cautiously optimistic about the news that LICH may have a new lease on life.

“We are encouraged by SUNY’s decision to withdraw the closure plan,” said Sorra. “We are committed to the restoration and improvement of services at LICH, and we will remain vigilant in our efforts to ensure that SUNY fulfills its obligation to maintain services and departments at the levels in place prior to the submission of the closure plan.”

Area politicians were also delighted, yet measured in their claims of victory.

“We’ve been making our voices heard loud and clear: LICH is vital to Brooklyn. And it’s clear we’re being heard,” said State Senator Daniel Squadron. “Now there’s a real opportunity for a collaborative process that engages the community and local leaders on LICH’s future.”

But, “as nearly the entire Brooklyn delegation wrote last week, it’s critical that any decision on LICH’s future includes community and legislative input,” he added. “I continue to urge the state to form a working group to ensure those voices are a key part of the process.

Congressmember Nydia Velazquez said that she would “continue pressing for a permanent solution that keeps this valuable institution open.” ‘

“LICH is a vital resource [that] offers additional healthcare options for thousands of Brooklyn residents, many of whom are uninsured and underinsured,” she said. “[It] will also retain an important source of good-paying local jobs.”

At least two of the city’s candidates for mayor also weighed in on the news, expressing universal excitement about this latest decision on an issue — the state of NYC and Brooklyn healthcare and hospital systems — that has become a major factor in the mayoral campaign.

Mayoral candidate and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn released a joint statement with Brooklyn Councilmembers Brad Lander and Stephen Levin — whose districts include the neighborhoods served by LICH — praising the news.

“This is a victory for Downtown Brooklyn, its residents and the entire health care system of New York City,” they said. “For more than 150 years, LICH has been an invaluable asset to its community and a critical part of the city’s health care system. It provides medical care to over 100,000 patients a year and employs more than 2,000 people. Thankfully, it will continue to.”

Former Brooklyn City Councilmember and current mayoral candidate Sal Albanese maintained his call for a moratorium on hospital closures throughout the city.

“LICH saves lives, and the people saved LICH,” Albanese exclaimed. “New Yorkers from across the five boroughs organized and fought hard to keep the hospital open, and today, they succeeded,” he said. “By staying united and never giving up, they’ve provided an inspiring example of how New Yorkers can protect their neighborhoods from those who would build condos on every square foot of public land if they could.”

Thrilled reactions spread down into Southwest Brooklyn, as well.

“This sends a very strong message that Brooklyn hospitals matter! Yes, these are tough economic times and there is tremendous fiscal stress but it makes no absolutely sense for us to continue cutting hospital beds while our borough grows by leaps and bounds,” said Councilmember Vincent Gentile, who represents Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, which recently saw the closure of one of its community hospitals, Victory Memorial. “We are playing a shell game with people’s lives and walking a tight rope without a net.”

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