By Arthur Z. Schwartz
Sometimes the wheels of Justice grind slowly.
Back in November 2017, Westview Publisher George Capsis and I, plus the political group known as Progressive Action of Lower Manhattan, filed a lawsuit to reverse the partial closure of Beth Israel Hospital (which involved the loss of its heart surgery unit, its maternity unit, and its pediatric surgery unit) and to stop the hospital’s future shutdown. Up until that point Beth Israel, the closest hospital to our part of town, had avoided any sort of comprehensive review of its plan to shut the 800-bed hospital, located at 1st Avenue and 16th Street. The plan of the parent hospital, Mount Sinai, is to open a 70-bed “mini-hospital,” on the corner of 14th Street and 2nd Avenue.
Mount Sinai-Beth Israel had attempted to get away with this by “segmenting” its applications to the State Health Department (called Certificate of Need applications of CONs) and by falsely stating in those applications that the cost of each change they sought approval for was $500. By stating that the change had a net cost of $500, the hospital avoided a requirement in the Public Health Law that the application be subjected to public review. The segmentation, which was tolerated by the Health Department (which is clearly complicit), also gave the Health Department cover not to review the project under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, also known as SEQRA. That law requires a public assessment of the environmental impacts of large actions receiving either government funds or government approval. An affect of public health is an environmental impact.
The numbers had shown that Beth Israel consistently has 3-400 beds filled, that it had 25% of the admissions in Lower Manhattan, and that its Emergency Room saw 90,000 people a year—even after it had announced its shutdown plans. Ambulances dispatched by the Northwell Health ER in the West Village head first to Beth Israel. More than a thousand babies were being delivered there each year prior to the Maternity Ward’s closure. The loss of this hospital, even as word of its demise kept people away, is incalculable.
After we filed suit the dismantling stopped. No CONs were filed for the next year, while we argued in five separate motions over whether the lawsuit should properly proceed. Finally, on September 17, Judge Shlomo Hagler, after hearing one additional argument, ruled, from the bench that the lawsuit should proceed. He set a date in November for an argument on the merits.
During the argument the Mt. Sinai-Beth Israel lawyers (who were supported by the State Attorney General, arguing on behalf of the Health Commissioner) said to the judge that the new hospital was now going to have 200 beds. The judge looked at me and said: “You said it was 70.” My response was “If its 200, that’s a big step in the right direction.” The judge won’t delay the argument, but he said to the hospital’s lawyers: “I advise you to talk. I use Beth Israel Hospital and I know how important it is to the community. The fact that your hospital has partly closed doesn’t mean that I can’t order you to keep the remainder open.”
Subsequently, the lawyers called and said that their representation of 200 beds was an error, but that they are open to negotiation. Talks could begin soon.
Arthur Z. Schwartz is the Democratic District Leader for Greenwich Village and President of the public interest law firm Advocates for Justice, which is handling the Beth Israel case.