Threading the suture: Life and death in the Village

By Arthur Z. Schwartz

I care about St. Vincent’s. Not because I am running for office. Or because I need a new cause to prove that I have mojo. I care because St. Vincents has indelibly touched my life, and because I know what it means to stare death in the face. I had a daughter born at St. Vincents 20 years ago. In 2006 I pushed another daughter, 3 years old, into the emergency room at midnight, in her stroller, because her appendix was about to burst. My mom, at 83, stayed there for two weeks with a broken leg while she healed. Add to that a broken arm, lacerations, a 107-degree fever, a concussion and “Big Brother” classes. By the time it closed, I could have served as a tour guide.

When it was open, the hospital was a mess. The nurses and doctors were nice, but the place was falling apart. I wasn’t thrilled about the real estate deal St. Vincent”s wanted, with its 20-story condos, but I was convinced, first, that we would lose the hospital without a deal; and, second, that our community needed the deal because we needed a better hospital. When the hospital closed, precipitously, I was as angry as anyone at the hospital’s board, and at the State Health commissioner, who apparently scuttled a takeover being considered by Mt. Sinai. I was pissed at our local elected officials, who seemed powerless to keep St. Vincents’s open and who misfocused our attention on an effort to get funds for an urgent-care facility to replace St. Vincent’s, a facility we later learned was a fancy name for a clinic.

Since then we have seen two poles emerge in an effort to get a hospital reopened on the Lower West Side. One, led by the elected officials, has promoted a “needs assessment” — a scientific study about who was serviced by St. Vincent’s and what their health needs were. They have put together an impressive study showing — lo and behold — that close to a majority of people in the Central and West Village, Chelsea, and Lower Clinton used St. Vincent’s as their primary hospital. Much of their data simply updates data found in the Berger Commission Report published in 2006, which was supposed to have the force of law. The public officials supporting the assessment efforts keep repeating, “Trust us,” “We’ll get you a hospital.” Brad Hoylman, former Community Board 2 chairperson, Village Democratic district leader and the incumbent-favored candidate to replace Christine Quinn in the City Council in 2013, is the public spokesperson for this effort.

On the other side is the Coalition for a New Village Hospital, which has signed up 5,000 people on its Web page. Perennial City Council candidate Yetta Kurland, who had been criticized for running without having roots in any community struggle, jumped into this one right after the hospital’s closing, filed two meritless lawsuits, which got her a lot of publicity, and has used her considerable talents as an organizer to pull off a rally, bring people to several public meetings (often chaired by Hoylman), and build an expansive e-mail list of folks demanding a new hospital. Yetta’s approach as the de facto Coalition spokesperson and strategist, has been to attack everyone else who insists on taking a careful measure of how to move forward. She derides the “needs assessment” as a waste of time since — “We all know that a hospital is needed.” As for the funds needed, she says that the money is available from the State Dormitory Authority. The location she favors — at the old St. Vincent’s Hospital site — is controlled by a Bankruptcy Court judge looking to pay off $1 billion in creditors, who Yetta says, doesn’t have the power to determine what gets built on the old hospital site.

Passive studies aren’t in and of themselves going to get us a hospital; but neither is “in your face” grandstanding by a candidate and a relatively small number of people she whips up. This is December 2010, ground zero to an era defined by budget deficits, House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican New York State Senate and a Governor Cuomo whose mantra is not compassion for the poor or the need for public works.

In fact, as we celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa, the governor-elect is out raising money to take on the annual effort by Local 1199 and the New York Hospital Association to protect healthcare funding in New York. A new hospital is going to cost millions of dollars. Although the money should be paid by the state — a point I am arguing in a little-publicized lawsuit being pursued by the Fulton Houses Tenants Association — it is as likely to be paid as the funds that the courts have ordered the state to pay to support quality education.

A private-sector hero, or amalgam of heroes, is going to have to be found, be it Long Island Jewish, or Mt. Sinai or someone else, in an era of hospital retrenchment. That hero will need to be convinced with lots of facts and figures that a modern, state-of-the-art, medical facility of some sort will make a profit. And they are going to need government support of some sort — probably not direct grants (because the money just is not there), but some form of tax credits, government-backed loans (the right collateral money these days comes with low interest rates).

And to get government support, those of us who want a new hospital are going to have to activate a lot more of our neighbors than we have to date; and we are going to have to work with the affected community boards, and our state senators, Assembly members and City Council members, and our activist borough president and public advocate and city comptroller; and the healthcare unions, and the building trades unions, and the block associations, and win over our new, progressive attorney general to take up our cause.

We are going to need those updated facts and figures that hopefully will come out of the needs assessment. And our “leaders” need to stop running a City Council campaign for an election that is nearly three years away. The needs assessment needs to be promoted, supported, and if anything, expanded into a tool that helps create popular support.

Next time one of my kids has an emergency, or next time I do, I am going to have to travel too far to get emergency care. If squabbling, or political posturing, is responsible for prolonging that situation, we will have been done a disservice. Earlier this week, a town hall meeting on the needs assessment ended with nurse Eileen Dunn, chairperson of the St. Vincent’s Chapter of the New York State Nurses Association, calling on everyone to stop the infighting and work together to broaden the effort. She talked about her love for our community and the tremendous need she saw for the work she did during her many years as a nurse at St. Vincent’s. She was right.

There is too much to do and too little known about how to move forward for anyone to declare that he or she can definitively differentiate “myth from reality,” as one flier declared at Monday evening’s forum. The only reality we have right now is diminished healthcare for our community, particularly those with lesser means.

Schwartz is the male State Democratic Committee member for Greenwich Village, Soho and Tribeca, and a member, Community Board 2. The views he expresses are his own.