Worker-community alliance pressures state to postpone plans to close a safety net hospital that serves East Flatbush’s predominantly Black and Caribbean community.
Despite the growing second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and calls from Mayor Andrew Cuomo to maximize hospital capacity around the state, Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center in East Flatbush was slated to close all its hospital beds by December 31, continuing as a collection of ambulatory and outpatient-care clinics.
Yesterday, at a Zoom town hall meeting with management, Kingsbrook healthcare workers learned that the hospital’s closure will be delayed until January 31, 2021. Closure evaluation will then ensue on a month-to-month basis.
Kingsbrook serves a largely Caribbean, Black and immigrant population. It is a safety net hospital that provides care regardless of a patient’s ability to pay. Like many safety net hospitals, it operates at a loss due to low Medicaid reimbursement rates, which makes it a target for budget-cutting politicians.
An average 60 percent of Kingsbrook’s hospital beds were being used prior to the pandemic. At the height of the pandemic in New York City, 125% of the hospital’s beds were in use. Today the hospital hosts 14 COVID-19 patients. That number will likely climb, as the positivity rate in the city is on the rise and a spike is predicted to follow winter holiday celebrations.
Jo Ann Brown is a registered dietician who has worked at Kingsbrook since 2017. “If Kingsbrook does close after the public health situation stabilizes, then no, nobody has really learned anything,” she said, pointing out the necessity of having vacant beds.
Before the phased closure began, the hospital had 248 beds that were suited for COVID-19 patients. As of August 13, it had 142. Since yesterday’s news, the reopening of at least an extra 41 beds has been announced.
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The official decision to delay the closure was likely made by the New York State Department of Health, which is the architect of the reorganization and closure of hospitals.
“My hope is that the community and staff pressure had an effect on how the administration is viewing the importance of the hospital,” Jo Ann Brown told The Indy.
Since August, when they got their bearings back after fighting for PPE during the hardest months of the pandemic, Kingsbrook workers organized and spoke out against the plan. They got local community board members on board, conducted an oral history project, hosted rallies, flyered in the community and reached out to local media outlets.
“If Kingsbrook does close after the public health situation stabilizes, then nobody has really learned anything.”
Their efforts were featured in a two-page spread in The Indypendent’s November issue. “The Indy provided us with hard copies of our story which we used in flyering efforts around Kingsbrook. That’s how the press helped in engaging the community,” Brown said.
“The Indypendent did a great job of bringing often ignored grassroots community voices to the fore on this issue,” said Julie Keefe, a nurse at Kingsbrook and another one of the leaders of the campaign to keep the hospital open.
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2020 has been a grueling year for the workers at Kingsbrook — the months spent at the height of the pandemic without adequate personal protective equipment and the struggle to mobilize the community to come to the defense of their hospital. And now that the hospital is going month-to-month, they are grappling with the uncertainty of not knowing when their lives could be turned upside down.
“I’m super happy that we have an extension for our patients and our community. It needs to be done. This is what we’ve been working so hard for,” Jo Ann Brown said. “But I am quite frustrated with how information is being distributed to employees who find out their position is transferred.”
“Everyone I talk to in 1199 [SEIU] is acting like they’re doing me a favor by keeping my job. But they’ve been completely unhelpful,” Brown added.
Kingsbrook’s workers are supposed to be notified within 30 days if they are going to be transferred (they would have been transferred, not fired, with the closure) but Brown said she was never told where she would be transferred, even though her posting at Kingsbrook was set to end December 31.
“Maybe they knew better, that they weren’t going to close. Somebody needs to tell me something so I can make plans for myself,” she told The Indy.
Brown was a key player in organizing community support for the hospital. “Now I’m pivoting to organizing the staff,” she said.
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