Politicians demand ‘clarity’ on whether Beth Israel is closing

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Following The Villager’s bombshell online report last Friday that Beth Israel Hospital could be sliding toward closing, the mayor and local politicians quickly sounded off. They expressed their fear of the unthinkable possibility — that Manhattan could lose its lone remaining large full-scale hospital south of 28th St. — and they demanded some answers.

Prominently citing last week’s Villager article, on Tues., May 17, a phalanx of eight local politicians wrote a joint letter to Kenneth Davis, president and C.E.O. of Mount Sinai Health System.

“We want to express our grave concern about the possibility of losing inpatient services at the Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital campus,” they wrote.

They noted that the article follows previous reports last fall that Davis and First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris met to discuss “plans to shrink Beth Israel,” and that the politicians, too, have been receiving calls from Beth Israel staff worried about staff levels being reduced.

“Beth Israel has been a constant presence and resource for the entire city, and the East Side of Manhattan in particular,” the eight politicians wrote. “Any downsizing or closure of Beth Israel threatens to further strain an already overburdened network of healthcare providers in Manhattan, reduce healthcare options and curtail services in the immediate neighborhood, and eliminate jobs.

“Please advise us of the current plans for the Beth Israel Mount Sinai campus,” they wrote. “Rumors should not drive the conversation here; it is critical that we and our constituents have clarity on this situation.”

The letter was signed by City Councilmembers Daniel Garodnick, Rosie Mendez and Corey Johnson, Congressmember Carolyn Maloney, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, state Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymembers Brian Kavanagh and Richard Gottfried.

Although Gottfried’s and Johnson’s districts don’t include the hospital, they are the chairpersons of their legislative bodies’ respective health committees.

In front of Mount Sinai Beth Israel’s Linsky Pavilion, at E. 16th St. and First Ave. Photo by Jonathan Alpeyrie

Mayor Bill de Blasio also expressed concern about the news — especially the idea that, according to hospital staff, plans for Beth Israel’s closing could be moving very rapidly at this point.

“The mayor is committed to ensuring communities have the healthcare facilities they need and preventing the sudden closure of hospitals,” Karen Hinton, the mayor’s top spokespersson, told The Villager. “The healthcare industry is changing rapidly and we must be prepared to protect patients and healthcare workers alike.”

It was only six years ago that the Village suffered a devastating blow with the closure of St. Vincent’s Hospital. For Beth Israel now to go under so soon afterward — with the wound of St. Vincent’s loss still being felt so viscerally — would be hard to fathom.

In a statement, State Senator Hoylman, whose district includes Beth Israel and formerly also included St. Vincent’s, demanded that the state “clear the air” about exactly what’s going on.

“Members of our community are understandably concerned by news accounts suggesting the potential loss of hospital services in connection with Mount Sinai Beth Israel,” Hoylman said. “I’d urge the New York State Department of Health to clear the air by proactively reassuring the community that the level of care they are entitled to will be maintained. Working with my colleagues in government, I will continue to advocate for the highest quality healthcare services for those living and working in my district, and will keep constituents updated as I learn more.”

Borough President Brewer stressed that, if in fact there is a move to rezone the Beth Israel site for residential use, it would at least have to go through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, a seventh-month-long public review process.

“My office is looking for answers to the questions raised by recent reports that Beth Israel might be closing,” Brewer said. “If true, such a closure would be a major loss to the Downtown community.

“But it’s my understanding that long-approved site plans for the hospital’s location are restricted to a ‘large-scale community facility’ and can’t be changed without a ULURP process. So I’m hopeful that a significant healthcare function there can be preserved — and that’s what I’ll fight for.”

State Senator Daniel Squadron added that the public must be involved in whatever plans are afoot for the hospital.

“As I’ve long said, decisions about healthcare facilities need to come with significant public engagement and planning,” Squadron said. “Recent reports about Beth Israel raise serious concerns — obviously, it’s critical that health services be preserved. I’m working with my colleagues for more information on this critical health facility which serves community members throughout my district.”

Developers’ dream

Beth Israel’s main campus occupies a full square block in ritzy Gramercy, from E. 16th to E. 17th St. between First Ave. and Nathan D. Perlman Place, bordering the east side of leafy Stuyvesant Square park with its enormous old trees — surely coveted Manhattan real estate, if ever there was.

Asked if the property would be a “yuuuge” draw for salivating developers, as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump might say, Bob Perl, president of the East Village’s Tower Brokerage, said definitely.

“It is super-yuuuuge,” Perl said. “It must be one of the remaining largest properties to become available and there will not be many more in the future.” Yet, at the same time, he said, “The value of land sales has dropped over the past six months, but that does not mean all the big guys will be going after a choice opportunity like this one.”

Perl said that’s because some of the big developers are more interested in commercial projects.

As thevillager.com exclusively reported last week, nurses from Mount Sinai Beth Israel called the newspaper last Tuesday, saying that word is now coming down from higher-ups that the historic hospital ultimately will close — and “sooner rather than later.”

‘Big announcement’

Official word may come extremely soon, they added.

“They are going to make a big announcement before the end of the month,” one of them said. “We anticipate this is coming next week.”

“Next week” is now this week, but as of press time, Mount Sinai Health System was not yet tipping its hand on what its long-term plans are for the hospital.

Asked point blank last week whether the hospital would be shuttering, a spokesperson issued a short statement that neither confirmed nor denied the staff members’ reports:

“Mount Sinai is committed to serving the community and offering the highest level of patient care. Leadership is currently discussing various options to accomplish these goals,” the spokesperson said last week.

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Mount Sinai Beth Israel’s distinctive-looking Linsky Pavilion, at E. 16th St. and First Ave. Photo by Jonathan Alpeyrie

Emptying buildings

This week, The Villager again asked the same question, plus asked what Mount Sinai’s plans are for Beth Israel’s Gillman Hall on E. 17th St. — a soon-to-be-vacated residence for on-call nurses and other hospital staff — as well as the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai residents building on E. 13th St., where staff similarly have been told to vacate by the end of August. Is Gillman Hall already on the market? And is there, in fact, a plan to create a vastly “scaled-down” Beth Israel Hospital somewhere at the Eye and Ear Infirmary site?

Again, the Mount Sinai Health System’s response was short on specifics — but this time included the added kicker that the health chain won’t be saying anything more for a while on any of this.

“Given the importance of Mount Sinai Beth Israel to the community, we understand why there are a lot of rumors and misinformation circulating,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “However, Mount Sinai is 100 percent committed to serving the community and offering the highest level of patient care. We are working on a plan which will enhance existing services and develop new facilities in the Beth Israel community. Until then, we will not have any further comment. In the meantime, there will be no disruption in any of our patient care services.”

New hospital plan fades

A statement the health system gave the paper nearly a year ago — after it was leaked that the plan then was to rebuild Beth Israel — was similar to the one from last week, but had included an additional sentence:

“Our vision is to create a state-of-the-art hospital at Mount Sinai Beth Israel with exceptional inpatient and outpatient care, as well as essential emergency facilities.”

That language about a new hospital, however, was notably absent from the two statements Mount Sinai issued over the past week.

Beth Israel was founded by a group of 40 Orthodox Jews on the Lower East Side in 1890. It has been located on Stuyvesant Square since 1929. In 2013, it merged with Mount Sinai — after which it became known as Beth Israel Mount Sinai — to create one of the nation’s largest nonprofit health systems.

Last June, as again first reported by The Villager — based on the tip of a concerned reader who heard it from his doctor — Beth Israel officials were telling staff that the hospital campus would be sold and the hospital rebuilt nearby. In a way, it all now sounds like it could be eerily similar to what happened with St. Vincent’s, where ambitious plans to build a new state-of-the-art hospital tower fell through, shortly after which St. Vincent’s closed under a mountain of debt.

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Part of Mount Sinai Beth Israel overlooks leafy, historic Stuyvesant Square park, with its enormous old trees, in the foreground. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Nurses spill the beans

According to three veteran Beth Israel nurses who contacted The Villager last week, hospital administrators kept up the rebuilding mantra until a couple of months ago — when the narrative abruptly shifted, and it was learned that the place would be shuttered for good.

Speaking on condition of condition of anonymity, the nurses said Mount Sinai has told them they will be given jobs in the health network’s other locations, so they don’t want to jeopardize their future employment by revealing their identities.

‘Closing in months’

“They’re going to close in months,” the first nurse said. “They’re going to start by downsizing. They are taking the services that were thriving at Beth Israel and moving them uptown.”

“First, they said they were going to rebuild at the corner of 17th St., where they own apartments,” she said. “They said they were going to build by the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary — they also own that.

“They claim that they’re losing $32 million a month.”

Keeping some programs

Mount Sinai, however, reportedly does plan to keep open the Phillips Ambulatory Care Center – Mount Sinai Beth Israel — an outpatient care center on Union Square East — she said. Beth Israel’s methadone program — the country’s largest, with numerous locations — will also continue to operate, she added.

Yet another hospital employee later called anonymously to say her understanding is Beth Israel will close, but its Bernstein Pavilion, “which serves the mental health community,” will stay open as comprehensive mental health facility. Bernstein is on Perlman Place between E. 16th and E. 15th Sts., so not on the main hospital block just to the north.

“They’re sending us e-mails telling us not to speak to the media or our assemblyman,” the second nurse said.

In a telltale sign, they noted they were recently told that the hospital’s Gillman Hall residence, on E. 17th St. — which is used by nurses on call and hospital fellows and residents — must be vacated by the end of June.

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The closing of a full-service hospital at Beth Israel could mean the loss of one of Downtown’s few remaining emergency rooms — unless it is replaced by a stand-alone E.R. without hospital beds, as was done at the former St. Vincent’s Hospital site. Photo by Jonathan Alpeyrie

What will Bill do?

When he ran for mayor, de Blasio campaigned on a platform of stopping the wave of hospital closings. But the Beth Israel nurses have little faith he can do anything in this case.

In August 2013, mayoral candidate de Blasio held a press conference outside the former St. Vincent’s Hospital site, which many saw as a calculated swipe at Christine Quinn, since the hospital was in her Council district and many felt she had not done enough to try to save it.

Pointing over at the Greenwich Lane luxury condo project rising on the former St. Vincent’s location, de Blasio told the crowd, “Brothers and sisters, we cannot, and we will not let this happen again.”

‘Working-class Hospital’

If Beth Israel closes, the third nurse to call noted, among those hit hardest would be lower-income and working-class people on the Lower East Side, in Chinatown and even Brooklyn — who make up a large percentage of the hospital’s patients.

The hospital also treats an Orthodox Jewish population. It has “sabbath elevators,” which stop on each floor, so that observant Jews don’t have to violate the Shabbos prohibition against work by pushing buttons.

Heard from Eye and Ear

In addition, this week an employee at the Eye and Ear Infirmary, after reading The Villager article, called to say that the plan to close its residents building is creating a real panic. The Eye and Ear Infirmary has three buildings, located between E. 14th and E. 13th Sts. along Second Ave. — its north and south buildings, plus the residents building on E. 13th St.

“We’ve been hearing a lot about they’re closing down Beth Israel,” she said, similarly requesting anonymity for fear of losing her job.

“There had been talk of closing down the south building and turning it into a smaller version of Beth Israel,” she said. “Now they have suddenly announced they are closing down our residents building. Some people have lived there like 14, 15 years. Some live there with their families.

The 14-story residents building, at 321 E. 13th St., is occupied above the third floor by nurses and medical trainees who serve the infirmary, which is a 24-hour facility. There are around 10 apartments per floor.

“It will be disruptive to those who are in there. We have to be out by the end of August,” the woman said. “They’re trying to move us to Stuyvesant Town and they’re going to subsidize us [there] for one year — and they’re not saying anything beyond that. I heard the nurses might try to hire an attorney to fight it.”

Like the Beth Israel nurses, she said, it’s time for some daylight to be shed on the health system’s plans.

“Somebody should talk to the press,” she said. “Somebody should let people know what’s going on.”

Asked if she suspects the Eye and Ear Infirmary is also being eyed for real estate development, she said, “That we’re being targeted? Absolutely. Are we going to be here in 10 years? It’s hard to say.”

Mount Sinai Health System also includes the nearby New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, on E. 14th St. From the sound of it, earlier plans to create a vastly “scaled-down” version of Beth Israel Hospital in the infirmary’s southern building, at right, have been scrapped. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Mendez trying to help

Councilmember Rosie Mendez’s district contains both Beth Israel and the Eye and Ear Infirmary. Speaking this week, she said she has been getting “dozens of calls” from worried people who live in the E. 13th St. residents building, some of whom are retirees. However, she said, since the housing is provided by Mount Sinai, it’s doubtful they have any protection from being kicked out. The best that can probably be done at this point, she said, is to try to help the residents stay there as long as possible, giving them a better chance to find replacement housing.

Concerned about the residents building and also Gillman Hall on E. 17th St. — plus then reading the shocking Villager article on top of that — Mendez, wanting some answers, last week called a Mount Sinai intergovernmental official who is her usual contact person there. But she said she got the exact same response as the newspaper.

“There are two buildings that they are empyting out,” she said. “I called them. They said the same thing they told you — just like verbatim. I said, ‘That sounds familiar, like I read it in my local paper.’ They said, ‘That’s our official statement. In the future, when we have something to say, we’ll call you and set up a briefing.’ ”

‘Something will happen’

“It looks like, from the way they are talking, something’s going to happen,” Mendez said, “that they’re going to downsize and sell the property.”

Mendez said she and a group of other local politicians — including Hoylman, Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh and Councilmember Dan Garodnick — are working to set up a meeting with Mount Sinai officials to get some information. Garodnick’s district includes Stuyvesant Town, whose residents include many Beth Israel patients, as well as Beth Israel employees.

“It’s very disconcerting,” Mendez said. “A lot of these hospitals that have closed have been in Manhattan. Each hospital closing impacts the others that are left.”

In addition to St. Vincent’s, she noted, “We lost Cabrini in 2008. It had 400 beds.”

Hospitals to condos

Perhaps foreshadowing what may well happen with Beth Israel, Gramercy Square, a glitzy $350 million 223-apartment condo complex, is planned for the former Cabrini site, midblock between E. 19th and 20th Sts. and Second and Third Aves.

Meanwhile, as condos continue to replace hospitals, the Greenwich Lane at the former St. Vincent’s site, boasting 199 luxurious homes, is slated to open by late summer or early fall.

Out of the flood zone

Mendez recalled how Beth Israel played a key role during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, when both N.Y.U. Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital were flooded and evacuated and St. Vincent’s had been closed two years gone by.

“They took everybody to Beth Israel,” she said. “There were people in the hallways and in makeshift rooms. They were overcapacity. … Is the state looking at this? It’s worrisome.”

Sea levels are rising — while hospitals are vanishing.

If Beth Israel closed, the only Downtown hospital left would be New YorkPresbyterian / Lower Manhattan Hospital. Relatively small with 170 beds, it is located all the way down just south of the Brooklyn Bridge. One of its chief functions is as a maternity hospital for Chinatown.

‘There were signs’

“There were certain signs,” Mendez reflected of Beth Israel’s plans. “About a year ago, they eliminated all of their methadone inpatient beds — about 200-odd beds. And Gillman Hall on E. 17th St., people were being told they had to move.

“He came to me before to speak to me about the methadone beds,” she noted of the Mount Sinai official. “This time, I called him — so that’s also telling.

“I think the rumors have been around, but I think The Villager article makes everything more real, not just rumor,” she said. “Something is going to happen.”

The councilmember said if Mount Sinai plans to create new little clinics in place of the hospital, it would have to be cleared with the state.

“Whatever they’re doing is close to the vest,” Mendez said.

At this point, she said, no one might be able to find out anything more until Mount Sinai Health System is ready to make an official statement.

“Which I will also probably read [first] in The Villager,” Mendez quipped.

Obamacare?… Hospitals!   

Clayton Patterson, the Lower East Side documentarian, said the news on Beth Israel is appalling and really shows the insane direction that New York is headed.

“The amount of people moving in down here and the displacement of healthcare and services — that’s an incredible story that none of these f—ing yuppies seem to get,” he fumed. “We’re trading luxury apartments for the few for the healthcare of the many.

“We’re talking about three major hospitals in the Downtown area closing — Cabrini, St. Vincent’s and now Beth Israel. Does it matter if you have Obamacare or not, if you can’t get to a hospital?”