Published: August 1, 2013
Publication: The Villager
By Lincoln Anderson
Taking his surging campaign for mayor right into Christine Quinn’s backyard, Bill de Blasio will reportedly hold a press conference this Mon., Aug. 19, at noon, at the site of the former St. Vincent’s Hospital.
Arthur Schwartz, who is running for Democratic district leader, tipped The Villager off about the upcoming event.
De Blasio won’t merely be decrying the closing of St. Vincent’s, as well as the threatened closure of Brooklyn’s Long Island College Hospital, according to Schwartz.
“I believe he is going farther,” Schwartz said. “He is going to say that there must be a citywide effort to stop the loss of hospital beds, and that the problem is bigger than Brooklyn — and that as mayor, he will make sure there is a comprehensive effort to restore healthcare where it is needed.”
Initially, Schwartz told The Villager he believed de Blasio on Monday would call for restoration of a full-service hospital for the Lower West Side. But a source close to the campaign said on Friday that de Blasio, in fact, will not do that.
Schwartz added he will be endorsing de Blasio on Monday, and that he hopes de Blasio will return the favor and do the same for his own candidacy.
A Quinnipiac University poll released on Aug. 13 on the mayor’s race, sampling just under 600 voters, found that de Blasio, the city’s current public advocate, who has been an outspoken critic of Mayor Bloomberg on policing and other issues, was in first place, with the support of 30 percent of voters, while Quinn had 24 percent, Bill Thompson had 22 percent and Anthony Weiner was at 10 percent. Another poll two days later, however, by the Wall Street Journal/WNBC/Marist College, found de Blasio and Quinn tied at 24 percent each.
De Blasio has seized on the issue of embattled and closing hospitals like no other mayoral candidate. Last month, he was arrested at a protest against the planned shuttering of L.I.C.H., which is operated by the State University of New York. He continues to fight to try to save L.I.C.H.
In an interview with The Villager earlier this summer, the newspaper asked de Blasio for his thoughts on St. Vincent’s demise three years ago and whether the historic Catholic hospital could — and should — have been saved.
‘Absolutely could have been saved’
“Yes — absolutely could have been saved,” de Blasio asserted of St. Vincent’s. “I was in the middle of it, on the task force [convened by former Governor David Paterson to try to find another hospital to absorb or unite with St. Vincent’s].
“There’s no question in my mind, it could have been saved,” he said. “I talked to the mayor several times, I talked to the governor and the state Health commissioner a number of times. I talked to the president of Mt. Sinai [Hospital, which wanted to repurpose part of St. Vincent’s for reuse as a smaller hospital]. There was no question it could have been saved.
“It should have been saved,” de Blasio continued. “It was too important to too many people in terms of the whole swath of the West Side, from the Battery to 59th St. There was no reason to lose such a valuable facility. And look, all of us said it would be an updated and streamlined version of St. Vincent’s. It would be the emergency room, the mental health clinics, the AIDS clinic, the pieces that had been particularly groundbreaking… . Save the elements of the particular hospital that are the strong suits; keep as much emergency capacity as you can. And I think Mt. Sinai was ready to do that.”
De Blasio maintained that both Bloomberg and Quinn, as the City Council speaker, must be held accountable for the loss of St. Vincent’s.
“I think Quinn and the mayor have to be seen as inseparable here — as they are on the vast majority of things,” de Blasio charged. “The mayor very overtly did not want to intervene.”
The public advocate added that he felt Bloomberg and Richard Daines, the then-commissioner of the state Health Department, “believed in the Berger Commission model, in a sort of purist way,” and so, based on that official study’s recommendations on the city’s hospital system, they felt St. Vincent’s was expendable.
‘Compromise was available’
“And they were unwilling to accept a compromise that was readily available,” de Blasio added. “And Quinn wasn’t willing to challenge the mayor on it — so she does have to bear responsibility for that.”
The Villager noted to de Blasio that New York University was said to have been interested in possibly partnering with Mt. Sinai on a new hospital at the St. Vincent’s site, that there were some different scenarios.
“Well, it was certainly Mt. Sinai,” de Blasio responded. “I don’t remember N.Y.U. particularly being a part of it. Mt. Sinai was asking for several accommodations to allow them to go in and substantially save the hospital. I thought it was abundantly fair what they were asking for. And, literally — and I have to say, this broke out of every model I’ve seen of government — to see a governor and a mayor simultaneously just turning their backs and not taking responsibility. … Paterson at that point seemed to be changing his position often… . Bloomberg obviously at that point did not feel accountable to anyone because he had gotten his third term, and he was a lame-duck billionaire, so… .”
What happens without term limits
De Blasio noted he opposed extending term limits to give Bloomberg a third term.
“This is what many of us projected would happen,” he stated. “Any lame-duck leader is potentially unresponsive….and [his being] a billionaire, on top of that. He just didn’t feel there was any negative to him or his legacy about turning his back [on St. Vincent’s].”
But what about the Greenwich Village hospital’s massive, crushing $1 billion debt at the end? de Blasio was asked. Could a hospital have ever been dug out of such an incredibly deep financial hole?
“It had a failing history,” de Blasio acknowledged of St. Vincent’s. “But it had, I think, in a streamlined form, a way to be both incredibly important to the future of the city and the neighborhoods that it served, and a manageable economic dynamic going forward.”
‘Easier to let it fail’
Asked again, if there was a scenario under which St. Vincent’s could have been saved, why then the city administration and state Department of Health let it die, de Blasio answered, “Because it was easier to… . You’re right, the debt was a thorny issue. Look, the debt had to be handled one way or the other, it wasn’t going to evaporate. It was easier to not go through the hard work of finding a compromise that could have been sustainable for the long term. And again, I think the mayor and Daines — I would differentiate Paterson from Daines and Bloomberg — Daines and Bloomberg ideologically believed in the Berger Commission concept. They wanted to see a shrinking of our healthcare apparatus, or certainly our number of hospital beds, number of hospitals. I think that is simplistic and a misunderstanding of the needs of neighborhoods.
“I think we understand we have to make a series of changes, but it’s not, in my view, done by wholesale closures,” de Blasio stated. “Particularly not if you have the only healthcare facility for a vast number of people. …
“What I resent in this is, I think, [is that] it’s the responsibility of mayors and governors to step in and find solutions,” he said. “And, particularly, in the mayor’s case, he did not feel he had any responsibility. In fact, he was only too happy to see it close. There was an available solution with a private-sector investor. That’s what drives me crazy — [just] that it needed leadership to finish it. And the person who, I think, in that case would have best stepped in was the mayor, and he refused to do it.”
Asked to clarify who he meant by the “private-sector investor,” he said, Mt. Sinai.
E.R. is a good start
Asked about the $110 million, 24/7, stand-alone emergency room and comprehensive-care center that North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System is currently constructing in the former St. Vincent’s O’Toole Building, across the street from the former main hospital campus, de Blasio said, it’s a good start.
However, the North Shore-L.I.J. facility is not intended as a full-service hospital, and will only have about two beds — only for very brief use by patients, who will be transported to area hospitals if they need longer-term care.
“Look, I want an emergency facility and I certainly think it’s a step in the right direction,” de Blasio said of the stand-alone E.R. coming to W. 12th St. and Seventh Ave. “What I don’t understand enough is how do you support emergency rooms without some of the surrounding capacity? And that’s why I think trying to start over [by constructing a new facility] is a hell of a lot harder than if we said, ‘We’re going to systematically figure out how to bring this thing [the former St. Vincent’s Hospital] down to a size that supports an emergency room, and keep some of the specialties, but is more economically viable.’
“I think Mt. Sinai understood that this was a very appealing demographic for them to have more presence in,” he added of Greenwich Village and the Lower West Side, in general. “That’s why it could have worked, in business terms. It would have been figuring out that level that actually was the [financial] break-even point. … We need an emergency capacity but what I still don’t know enough is what you have to put around it to actually make it effective.”
Quinn: ‘We absolutely need a hospital’
In a recent interview with The Villager, Quinn acknowledged that both Mt. Sinai and N.Y.U. had been “very interested in taking over St. Vincent’s.”
Like de Blasio, she too said, “I think we absolutely need to find another full-service hospital for the Lower West Side,” adding, “but it’s just one part of a bigger healthcare picture.”
Asked if she felt Mayor Bloomberg had done enough to try to save St. Vincent’s, Quinn said, no.
“Because he doesn’t believe in intervening in terms of private hospitals,” she said. However, Quinn added, she disagrees with that view, and if elected mayor, would get involved in trying to keep private hospitals alive. She said she was concerned about L.I.C.H. currently facing closure in Brooklyn.
As for how early she and other elected officials became aware that St. Vincent’s really was facing going under, Quinn said the realization came abruptly: St. Vincent’s administrators had been telling local politicians everything would be O.K., and then suddenly the hospital was canceling its contracts for interns and residents, which bring in a lot of federal dollars. By losing that funding stream, she said, it was clear the hospital was throwing in the towel.
Thompson: ‘An epidemic of closings’
Asked about St. Vincent’s, Thompson told The Villager, “What you are looking at now is almost an epidemic of hospital closings across the city. And you had a flu epidemic in 2008. … St. Vincent’s, L.I.C.H… . You look at Central Brooklyn — Interfaith, Brookdale, Wyckoff…,” he said, referring to several currently cash-strapped hospitals.
“The mayor always says, ‘It’s not a city thing,’ ” Thompson said of non-municipal hospitals. “But that’s what you should be involved in — and this mayor has not.”
Thompson declined to take a shot at Quinn over St. Vincent’s closing in her own Council district, saying, “I just think, at the end of the day, you look at a hospital that isn’t there — and that neighborhood still has concerns about healthcare.”
Weiner: ‘Mayor passive on hospitals’
Weiner, in a recent interview with The Villager, predicted, “The next mayor will do a much better job” on preserving the city’s hospital network.
“We lost 13 hospitals,” he noted, adding, “We lost 103 parish schools in the last 10 years — with barely a peep.
“This mayor has been very passive about hospitals and schools,” he charged.
More to the point, Weiner said, hospitals should be seen “as an economic development opportunity for the city,” and that failing to do so is “a lost opportunity.”
“The mayor has said a lot of things that don’t make sense: ‘You can’t have a hospital on every corner, you can’t have a police officer on every corner,’ ” he accused. “That’s a very glib way of looking at things.”
Final chapter of a failing system
However, others think that the closing of St. Vincent’s — the city’s last Catholic hospital — should simply be seen as the last gasp of an outmoded Catholic healthcare system that could no longer keep up amid the ultra-competitive Manhattan healthcare market — that St. Vincent’s was the final domino to fall in the collapse of New York’s Catholic hospitals.
Kurland: ‘Expand E.R. into a hospital’
Yetta Kurland, who is running against Corey Johnson in the race for Quinn’s Council seat, raised her profile as one of the most outspoken activists fighting to keep St. Vincent’s open, and since its closure, fighting for a replacement hospital.
This Tuesday, in an interview with The Villager, she said she and her allies have three scenarios for a new hospital in the Village, one of which is to add four to six stories above the O’Toole Building, which, she said, could accommodate a 200-bed hospital.
Kurland said a hospital engineering consultant they retained told them this could be done for the same price — which she gave as $139 million — that North Shore-L.I.J. is spending to convert the existing O’Toole building to the freestanding E.R. and care center.
However, when asked to explain how this could be done for the same price, Kurland didn’t offer much in the way of clarification. Similarly, asked what steps would need to be taken to bring back a hospital to the Lower West Side, she didn’t offer any specifics — other than to say that electing her to the Council would be the first step. The state Department of Health must approve any new hospital.
Plus, there would be the cost. While Kurland says the price would only be $139 million, most hospital professionals say the typical price tag is closer to $2 million per hospital bed.