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Hopes brighten for embattled medical center

Though the ongoing fight to build and invest in SUNY Downstate Medical Center is far from over, the labor-community coalition leading the effort to prevent the privatization of the Brooklyn, N.Y., hospital continues to have an impact.

marchers for SUNY downstate

In March, New York legislators heeded the call of clergy, union members, patients and others, who have rallied, marched and lobbied to save the vital services provided by the medical center, excluding from the state budget a pilot measure that would have opened the door to privatizing the State University of New York hospital and two others in the system.

The budget takes important steps in the healthcare arena, AFT President Randi Weingarten says, including "preventing our hospitals—like SUNY Downstate Medical Center—from being privatized, helping ensure vulnerable communities get the care they need."

The New York State Public Employees Federation applauded the Legislature for rejecting proposals to privatize SUNY Downstate and the other hospitals and convert them into for-profit hospitals. That plan "would weaken our public hospital system and put patients at the mercy of corporations that put profits before patients," a statement from PEF says.

"Allowing the private sector into public hospitals would have endangered the continuation of health services that save lives but that are often not offered at for-profit hospitals," says Frederick Kowal, president of the United University Professions at SUNY and an AFT vice president.

The campaign on behalf of SUNY Downstate received significant exposure in February, when the SUNY Downstate Coalition of Faith, Labor and Community Leaders organized a fast and rally at the medical center.

Religious leaders from various faiths, union members and dozens of Brooklyn residents participated in the 48-hour fast. Coalition leaders praised the major role SUNY Downstate plays in the community, and encouraged supporters to sign a petition urging the governor to take action to keep it a public, fully operating institution of teaching and healing.

"We as clergy are proud to support our community by fasting, to bring attention to their urgent need for accessible healthcare and the jobs Downstate brings that help our economy," said Elder Wilmouth Seaton, of Brooklyn Community Church, at the rally.

Susan Kent

SUNY Downstate is Brooklyn's fourth-largest employer, and 60 percent of its workers live in the borough of Brooklyn. Several state legislators and Joy Williams of the Brooklyn NAACP also spoke at the rally.

"This fast is significant because it represents the determination of the clergy, supported by labor and the community, to keep the doors of SUNY Downstate Medical Center open," said PEF President Susan Kent (at right), who is also an AFT vice president. "Thousands of people in Brooklyn rely on this public hospital. It needs to stay open as a fully staffed healthcare facility and teaching center. PEF applauds the clergy who are fasting and taking this fight to a higher level."

SUNY Downstate's medical school is a pipeline for future doctors and medical professionals to hospitals in Brooklyn and New York City, pointed out UUP Downstate Chapter President Rowena Blackman-Stroud. "One of every three Brooklyn doctors is a Downstate graduate, and more New York City doctors have graduated from Downstate than from any other medical school. Increasing state funding to SUNY Downstate will protect the future of the medical school and the future of the health professionals it educates." [Roger Glass/photos by David Grossman]

April 9, 2014