Changes at Downtown Hospital spark conversation

BY Aline Reynolds

The economy has taken its toll on medical and public transportation services Downtown and citywide, sparking a broad-ranging discussion at last Thursday’s meeting of Community Board 1’s Quality of Life Committee.

New York Downtown Hospital is implementing several changes. On the bright side, it finished 2010 by posting a profit of more than $3 million.

The hospital just expanded its physical therapy services for patients who have recently had joint replacements. It also received approval from the state to build two new operating rooms, increasing its total number of O.R. suites to eight. Hospital administrators are now petitioning for another one.

Administrators also plan to open an outpatient gastroenterology unit on the fifth floor of Beekman Tower in 2012. “It’ll free up more space in our facility,” Warren Licht, Downtown Hospital’s chief medical officer, told committee members.

Licht and his team have forged an agreement with the new Emergency Medical Care center located at 200 Chambers Street, so the center’s patients can be referred to hospital physicians for post-urgent care treatment.

The hospital is also transforming an entire floor of office space into an urgent care unit. Renovations, Licht said, will be completed by August 1.

Chui Man Lai, assistant vice president of patient services at the hospital, said its doctors’ offices, now situated in Southbridge Towers’ courtyard next to the community room, will be relocated soon for patients’ convenience.

“We’re planning to [move] it to the outskirts of Southbridge area [possibly next to the old Burger King],” Man Lai said, “so it’ll be more visible, and people can have easy access.”

Despite these improvements, an impending budget shortfall is forcing the hospital to do away with some of its services. It is phasing out its outpatient dialysis unit, which was recently ranked in the top two percentile of the nation’s treatment centers for kidney failure. It also had to reduce physical therapy services for patients lacking insurance.

“We’re a financially distressed institution, especially since we serve a large uninsured population,” explained Licht.

The hospital has struggled to keep the dialysis unit open for several years, according to Licht. It had to be shuttered, or other crucial health services the hospital offers would be compromised.

The closest outpatient dialysis center to Downtown Hospital is the Chinatown Dialysis Center, which Licht said was “well-regarded.” The hospital has transitioned its 50 dialysis patients to this and other clinics around the city, except for one patient, who is currently hospitalized and is receiving in-house dialysis treatment.

Scheduling a physical therapy appointment at the hospital has recently proven difficult for Downtown residents, according to committee member Ruth Ohman. Some residents at Southbridge Towers have had to wait three to four weeks, she said, to be seen.

“It’s a convenience issue,” said Ohman.

Licht attributed the delays to recent service cuts and advised those seeking to schedule physical therapy to call 212-312-5500 or 212-312-5548. “If one of them can only give you an appointment one month away, call the other number,” he told the committee.

Public Advocacy

The budget squeeze has also affected public transportation. Rider Rebellion, a citywide coalition, has created a Transit Riders’ Bill of Rights in response to the recent service cuts made by the Metropolitan Transit Authority. The M.T.A. has recently slashed two subway lines, 38 bus routes and other services as a result of $118 million in state budget cuts.

The Manhattan Borough Board is set to vote on the Transit Riders’ Bill of Rights on March 17. The resolution has already gained advisory approval from Community Boards 2, 3, 6, 8, 10 and 11.

The C.B. 1 committee drafted a resolution asking for more reliable train and bus travel throughout the five boroughs; accurate real-time announcements of train and bus arrival times; well-lit, clean and accessible subway stations and bus stops; and more helpful, courteous customer service.

The committee also recommended that M.T.A. agents be placed at every station to strengthen safety for straphangers.

“These are basic things we feel all riders deserve,” said Campaign Leader Mo Kinberg, policy and outreach manager for Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit public transit advocacy group. The goal, she said, is to garner statewide support for increased funding, improvement and expansion of the city’s public transit system.

L.M.C.C.C. Update

Construction projects Downtown are coming along as planned, according to Robin Forst, Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center’s director of community and government relations.

The Vesey Street Bridge will be closed on Saturday, February 26 and Sunday, February 27 as Tower 1-related construction proceeds nearby. There will be a pedestrian detour on Murray Street on both days, and appropriate signage to direct pedestrians, according to Forst.

Construction work is resuming at 99 Washington Street, meanwhile, and the Hudson Street water main project is moving along as anticipated. Fiterman Hall, a Borough of Manhattan Community College building damaged in the 9/11 attacks, will be “topped-out” by the end of this month. The chain link fence surrounding 130 Liberty Street, where the former Deutsche Bank building once stood, will be taken down in a few days’ time and right-hand turns out of the Holland Tunnel circle will be permitted again in about two weeks, once construction work there is complete.

The committee also drafted a resolution commending New York Police Department Transit District Two officers Terrance Howell and Tamara Taylor for subduing, disarming and handcuffing Brooklyn stabber Maksim Gelman on Saturday, February 12 without deadly force. Other officers from Transit District Two provided medical assistance to injured straphangers, secured the crime scene and transported passengers to a safe location, according to the resolution.