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NYC Nurse: I’m Running For State Assembly To Fix Our Broken Healthcare System

Phara Souffrant Forrest Apr 10

In the face of COVID-19, all eyes are on New York. As Gov. Andrew Cuomo tries to manage the American epicenter of this pandemic — where frontline healthcare workers are cramming bodies into refrigerator trucks and reusing personal protection equipment (PPE) — many have praised his  “leadership” during this difficult time. But as a registered nurse here in New York City, I do not think Andrew Cuomo deserves any praise. 

The chaos and carnage in our hospitals is the inevitable result of decades of cuts to our state’s healthcare system. The chronic lack of bed space and staff has degraded our ability to handle this pandemic and, in the midst of this unprecedented healthcare crisis, Gov. Cuomo has slashed hospital and Medicaid funding even further. 

New York should also be doing more than just the bare minimum to mitigate this crisis: 

  • We should be passing safe staffing standards to make sure we can properly take care of thousands of COVID-19 patients. 
  • We should pass the New York Health Act to give health insurance to the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers now out of work and without coverage. 
  • And we should raise taxes on New York’s 84 billionaires to do it. 

Phara Souffrant Forrest. Photo: Courtesy.

I took an oath as a nurse to protect the people in my care, and after lobbying state lawmakers with my union to fix our broken system, I’m running for Assembly to get the job done myself.

In the past few weeks, Gov. Cuomo has called for the state to double the number of its hospital beds in the face of this pandemic but, over the last 20 years, Democrat and Republican governors alike have eliminated over 20,000 hospital and ICU beds. Until very recently, Cuomo maintained that New York has an “excess” of hospital beds and used this ludicrous claim to justify hospital closures and Medicaid cuts. 

The idea that public hospitals had enjoyed a significant amount of unused space before COVID-19 is laughable to anyone who has ever been inside of one. Safety net hospitals are typically overflowing with patients, who wait for hours in emergency rooms to seek both primary and emergency care. 

Now, while our state scrambles to convert the Javits Center and Central Park into field hospitals, we are left to imagine what 20,000 more beds would have meant in the midst of this pandemic. 

Space is only one part of the equation. New York is quickly approaching a situation in which there will simply not be enough nurses. Hospitals are struggling under a tsunami of coronavirus patients. Gov. Cuomo is making desperate pleas for out-of-state healthcare workers to come help New York. But even in normal times, New York’s hospitals are dangerously understaffed. 

Prior cuts to the Medicaid budget have resulted in the loss of hundreds of nurses from the public system over the last decade, while private hospitals have reduced staffing to razor-thin margins in order to cut costs. Even before this pandemic, nurses were commonly charged with overseeing numbers of patients that far exceed the range of what is considered safe and hospitals have bitterly resisted a bill, championed by the New York State Nurses Association, that would have implemented safe nursing staff ratios across the state.

To cover these gaps, nurses are overworked and routinely “floated” to unfamiliar hospital units and forced to work in unfamiliar medical practice areas. This results in predictable, avoidable suffering and deaths for patients. In the midst of COVID-19, many nurses who work in outpatient care have been reassigned to floors with infected patients who require specialized training. So-called “lean” staffing has left our healthcare facilities even less prepared to face the onslaught of a pandemic while shortages of PPE are forcing nurses to reuse essential equipment or turn to makeshift, inadequate coverings. 

The impact of these short-sighted, profit-driven decisions is part of why I decided to run to represent the 57th Assembly District in Brooklyn.

For years, I watched profit-motivated politicians decide which New York hospitals closed and which remain open. I watched as private hospitals competed for patients with better insurance plans that pay high reimbursement rates while the uninsured and Medicaid patients were shunted into overburdened public hospitals that rely on lower reimbursement rates and public subsidies. I watched as nurses were stretched thin to cover far more patients than we could handle.

During this pandemic, hospitals have flouted safety protocols and put healthcare workers’ lives at risk simply because decades of a profit-mindset left them terribly unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shame on Gov. Cuomo for cutting hospital beds year after year. Shame on Governor Cuomo for cutting Medicaid and hospital funding in the middle of a pandemic. But especially, shame on the legislative leaders that shepherded through this austerity budget as if our state had no other choice. 

Even before COVID-19, New York desperately needed more investment in our healthcare system. Now gripped with COVID-19, these cuts will surely mean that more people will die in our already overcrowded hospitals. Taxing the millionaires and billionaires who live in New York would bring in more than enough revenue to tackle this pandemic through necessary legislation like the New York Health Act.

We cannot keep putting profits before people. 

I have experienced the fragility of our crumbling healthcare system as a professional and as a patient. I took a pledge as a nurse to protect the people in my care; to do all that I could to make sure they got better. But nurses can’t do that in an overcrowded hospital without the supplies of staff necessary to do our jobs. When I lobby state lawmakers with my union, we always get the same talking points about making do with what we have.

I’m sick and tired of begging for the funding, supplies and staffing to do my job, so I’m running for the Assembly to make those changes myself. 

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