By Arthur Z. Schwartz
The fight to save Beth Israel Hospital—which has now been won—is about to enter a new phase: the decision about what services will remain and what services will be brought back to the hospital now that downsizing has ended.
My own position on this issue was shaped by the hospital’s role in keeping me alive. In November, 2016 George Capsis wrote a piece in WestView reporting on a meeting he attended about the planned closure of Beth Israel Hospital by its new parent, Mt. Sinai Hospital, and he asked me to write a follow-up for the February, 2017 issue. On January 31st of 2017, I woke up and knew that I was having a heart attack. I went to Northwell Health and they stuck me in an ambulance and took me to, of all places, Beth Israel. I’d grabbed my laptop on the way out of my house, and blogged about almost dying. That afternoon, George showed up at the hospital with Maggie Berkvist (the best photographer in NYC) to take a photo for my story (and to see how I was). George told all the nurses in the ICU (where I was the only patient) that I was an activist lawyer and could save the hospital if they gave me the inside scoop. The next day I wrote the following for WestView, which waited for my input before going to the printer:
“It has been two days since I was wheeled in here (Beth Israel), thinking that I was about to die. However, I didn’t die. Instead, I found myself in a wonderful place, with awakened memories of my last stay here 29 years ago when my son Jacob was born.
The doctors have been outstanding. The cath lab folks and the emergency room technicians saved my life by doing their jobs with precision. I have been in the cardiac intensive care unit the whole time; and after a visit from George Capsis, they all wanted to talk.
The cath unit is a proud group. They are the first line in saving the lives of people with heart attacks and those at risk of heart attacks. The surgeons and equipment are top of the line. The nurses have 20 to 30 years of experience.
Last May 26th, Mount Sinai’s President Kenneth Davis said that the hospital was “transforming, not closing,” and that “nobody was closing the doors, taking away the keys, and telling everyone who is employed here that they are [no longer] employed, [or] telling patients to find another place.” He repeated that “This is not a closure,” but the nurses have told me otherwise.
Other than stent surgery, which is non-invasive, heart surgery no longer takes place at Beth Israel. So, if someone arrives in an ambulance and the ER determines that a bypass is needed, the patient returns to the ambulance and gets sent to Mount Sinai at East 99th Street. The nurses said that whole floors are closed down, and that nothing at Beth Israel is being “transformed.” Staff members are leaving in droves since Mount Sinai’s plans aren’t clear.
Perhaps the most important thing I have learned is that there is a constant need for 200-300 beds and that the plan for a 70-bed hospital is a joke. Also, Beth Israel takes everyone—insurance and no insurance. The nurses all believe that if Beth Israel closes, Northwell Lenox Health in the West Village will send people to Bellevue, which is an overcrowded city hospital, or Lenox Hill on East 77th Street. One nurse said that, in my case, the extra time traveling to Lenox Hill could have cost me my life.”
Armed with the information the nurses gave me, I began to track, in detail, the way Beth Israel was being incrementally shut down: heart surgery, then pediatric surgery, then maternity and neo-natal care. I brought the issue to the attention of the recently founded Progressive Action of Lower Manhattan (PALM), and that group held a town hall meeting at Local 32BJ, attended by 250 people. From that meeting, the Coalition to Save Beth Israel was formed. The Coalition set up a table in front of the hospital and collected thousands of signatures. I worked with then Public Advocate Tish James to track the process and we both wrote to State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, warning of litigation if the shutdown was approved. Of course, he ignored us.
In December, 2017 a lawsuit was filed by PALM. Little did we know, but that lawsuit froze the shutdown plans in its tracks. The litigation went on until March, 2020, one week before the COVID-19 lockdown across New York, with Judge Shlomo Hagler ruling that the heart surgery unit had been improperly closed.
In February, 2020, a few weeks earlier, the NY State Health Department had given preliminary approval to the new 70-bed hospital that Mt. Sinai wanted to build. I’d threatened to sue again, and Mt. Sinai’s lawyers asked me to wait because they weren’t ready to submit final plans. A few weeks later, COVID hit and the Javits Center became an emergency hospital. Penny Mintz (the Coalition chairperson) and I stood in front of Beth Israel on March 19, 2020 and demanded that the 400 beds which were sitting unused be opened. Mt. Sinai had little choice, and said OK.
Fast forward to 2021. With the COVID pandemic having demonstrated the need for a full-service hospital with hundreds of beds, Mt. Sinai announced its decision to keep the hospital open on June 15th. Details are still to be worked out, and we, the residents that the hospital is supposed to serve, need to have a genuine say in its rebuilding.
Right now, the hospital has over 600 licensed beds, and during the height of the 2020 COVID crisis in NYC, 400 COVID patients were hospitalized in those beds. Those numbers are way down (thankfully), but the hospital services which remain cannot be considered as a baseline about what can or should be preserved. Why?
In 2017 Mt. Sinai shut down just about everything other than the general surgery unit at Beth Israel, and even that unit was hardly what it had been, as doctors fled to other jobs. Heart surgery, pediatric surgery, and maternity and neo-natal care were closed. Almost no physicians sent patients to Beth Israel for anything; most admissions came through the ever-active emergency room. A revitalized Beth Israel must have a revitalized staff.
It goes beyond saying that maternity services must be brought back. Right now, the only hospital in Manhattan south of 30th Street where a woman can have a child is at Presbyterian Downtown, south of the Brooklyn Bridge. For heart-saving procedures other than a stent, again you either go to Downtown Presbyterian, NYU-Langone on 32nd Street and First Avenue, or Lenox Hill at East 77th Street. Pediatric surgery? Same answer. Those services also need to come back.
Is more needed? Yes. Next month I will feature an interview with Mark Levine (our next Manhattan Borough President, who currently chairs the New York City Council Committee on Health) and Carlina Rivera (chair of the New York City Council’s Committee on Hospitals) to pick their brains. Meanwhile, write to WestView News and tell us what you think is needed to protect our health at a revived Beth Israel.
Arthur Z. Schwartz* is the Greenwich Village District Leader and president of Advocates for Justice, a public interest law firm that brought the lawsuit Progressive Action of Lower Manhattan v. Zucker.