Maybe Beth Israel Hospital won’t be closing!

THE SMELL OF A WIN IS IN THE AIR: Arthur Schwartz and Penny Mintz’s (above) efforts have contributed to keeping Beth Israel open thus far. Photo by Lincoln Anderson.

By Arthur Schwartz

In April, as I was about to sue—again—to stop the new hospital, I got a letter from Beth Israel’s lawyer: “Don’t sue. We aren’t moving forward at this time.”

Fast forward to November. Beth Israel representatives told the Village Sun on November 13: “All options are back on the table.” 

The spokesperson said: “The pandemic has changed our world and radically impacted proposed healthcare projects across the country. As a result, when it comes to the future of Mount Sinai Beth Israel, we are putting every option back on the table, except closing the hospital. To be clear, we will not close Mount Sinai Beth Israel.”

On January 30, 2017, a Saturday morning, I woke up feeling awful. The symptoms said to me: “heart attack.” I got dressed and made my way one block to the West (my wife drove me) to Northwell Health, where I was seen right away. An EKG was hooked up, I heard a bunch of “uh-huhs,” and a doctor said, “you are going to the hospital by ambulance.” I said, “heart attack?” I got a blank response. I said, “which hospital?” He said “Beth Israel.” Having heard that Beth Israel was in the midst of closing, I asked: “Can I go somewhere else?” He suggested Lenox Hill, on 77th Street. My brain said “no, too far,” so off I went for a long 10-minute trip to Beth Israel. (A trip where the EMT asked if I was Arthur Schwartz the labor lawyer, and told me that I was in the midst of a heart attack.)

Those of you who read WestView back in 2017 know, because my blog from the hospital was a front page story, that the doctors and nurses at Beth Israel saved my life. They also told me what was happening there—from the inside—and begged me to help (after George Capsis came to visit and told them I was a crusading lawyer who could save their hospital).

They told me that a week before I arrived, the heart surgery unit had been closed. I was lucky that all I needed were stents. If I had needed surgery I would have been put back in an ambulance and shipped up to 101st Street and Madison, to Mount Sinai Hospital. But I also learned that 250 beds were still filled every day, and that General Surgery and the Emergency Room, and the Maternity Ward (where my son was born) were still in full swing.

I began to track the Hospital’s filings at the Health Department. Remember, when Mount Sinai bought Beth Israel in 2015 they promised to keep the hospital open. Well, by 2017 they were dismantling the hospital piece by piece, with plans for a new, 70-bed hospital at 14th Street and Second Avenue, and the elimination of 700 beds. In May 2017 they shut Maternity and Pediatric Surgery. They got permission to close hundreds of beds. In August 2017 the whole project was approved by the State Department of Health. No studies, no public hearings, just bureaucratic approval of the dismantling of our healthcare.

My Response? I filed a lawsuit, Progressive Action of Lower Manhattan (PALM) v. Zucker, and challenged the piecemeal closures, without studies or hearings, as a violation of both the Public Health Law and the State Environmental Quality Review Act. And Penny Mintz, with the help of PALM and Assembly Member Harvey Epstein, organized the Coalition to save Beth Israel, which had a teach-in, did a petitioning drive, and lobbied public officials. While we litigated and organized, through 2018 and 2019, Beth Israel halted its shutdown and the closure was delayed. 

In early March 2020, Judge Shlomo Hagler gave a mixed ruling: he said that the closure of the heart surgery unit violated the Public Health Law, but that “public health” was not an environmental concern, and would not reverse the other downsizing which had occurred.

His ruling followed a February 2020 vote by the Public Planning Health Council, in a divided vote, approved the new 70-bed hospital. It was an important, though not final step.

In mid-March the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered NYC. Thousands were sick. Beds were needed for COVID patients. Penny Mintz and I did a press conference in front of Beth Israel on March 19, demanding that it open up its 500 mothballed beds. Beth Israel denounced our press conference as a “publicity stunt;” several days later as the Javitz Center was turned into a hospital, Beth Israel agreed to open up 400 beds. Those beds remain open.

Is the fight over? Mt. Sinai has been dishonest before. But the smell of a win is in the air. It is sad that it took a pandemic to make the need for a full-service hospital in our community obvious. I am proud to have been part of an effort to get us this far. But we must keep up the pressure. (And I need to stay heart healthy!)

Arthur Schwartz is the Democratic District Leader for Greenwich Village and a candidate for City Council.

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