Villager photo by Lincoln Anderson
Yetta Kurland, left, outside Our Lady of Pompei Church after last Thursday’s organizing meeting about trying to get a new hospital.
From grassroots, with suit, fighting for a new hospital
By Lincoln Anderson and Roslyn Kramer
In the wake of St. Vincent’s Hospital’s closing, two local activist attorneys are spearheading efforts to create a replacement for it in Greenwich Village, but they’re taking divergent paths.
Representing individuals who used the hospital’s outpatient clinics, Yetta Kurland filed a lawsuit to have the state Department of Health stop the hospital’s closure.
“The state Department of Health has police powers,” Kurland told The Villager, explaining the thinking behind the litigation.
But after St. Vincent’s declared bankruptcy, her suit wound up in federal bankruptcy court, then was dismissed.
Kurland, though, is continuing to hold organizing meetings with local residents — but has now changed her focus to trying to get a new hospital on the existing St. Vincent’s Hospital campus site.
“Whether we call it St. Vincent’s II or another name or Mt. Sinai...,” doesn’t make any difference, she said. “We think there’s no reason there shouldn’t be a hospital at the same site.”
Her new group is called Coalition for a New Village Hospital.
At the same time, Arthur Schwartz’s lawsuit against the state Department of Health is still alive. The goal of his suit, filed on behalf of the tenants association of the Robert Fulton Houses in Chelsea — the closest New York City Housing Authority project to St. Vincent’s — is to block the state’s $9.4 million grant to create an urgent-care center at St. Vincent’s. Schwartz is seeking to compel the creation of a “full replacement hospital” for the Lower West Side — but not on the old St. Vincent’s campus.
Unable to ignore the continuing cries for a full-service hospital, local politicians have decided to hold “an educational panel,” titled “How Can We Get Back a Hospital for Our Community?” on Fri., May 21, at 5 p.m., at Our Lady of Pompei Church, at Carmine and Bleecker Sts.
Meanwhile, last Thursday, about 125 local residents gathered in the basement hall of Our Lady of Pompei, where Kurland led an organizing meeting. This followed a rally two weeks prior led by Kurland, and joined by local politicians, that was attended by a reported 400 people.
“We’re up against the masters of the universe,” Kurland observed, at last Thursday’s meeting.
“To lose the last Catholic hospital in this city is unconscionable,” said Jayne Hertko, a Village resident whose life was saved twice at St. Vincent’s.
Taking it to the street
Interim activities were proposed to keep the St. Vincent’s issue before the press. These included public art, a “hands around St. Vincent’s” demonstration, a street sleep-out encampment in front of the hospital and forming groups to work on specific tasks.
“We’ve got to be organized,” Kurland stressed. “And then let’s give them a chance to do the right thing.”
Kurland is demanding a full accounting of funds that the hospital received and spent. She’s leading a petition drive to get state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to do a full investigation into exactly “what precipitated the closure” of St. Vincent’s.
Having run a strong primary race last year against Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Kurland is widely expected to run for the seat again in 2013.
Joining Kurland at the meeting was Paul Newell, a Lower East Side Democratic district leader who first won election last year.
Echoing Kurland, Newell told The Villager there’s no reason a new full-service hospital shouldn’t be sited right in the existing St. Vincent’s facilities, at 12th St. and Seventh Ave.
“We’ve got $400 million of hospital infrastructure there,” he said.
‘A hospital is our right’
For his part, Schwartz is basing his case on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity suit that won a fair share of state funds for New York City’s public schools.
His main argument, he said, is “that we have an enforceable state constitutional right to a hospital.”
One of his tactics is to focus on the Berger Commission’s findings from several years ago. The commission analyzed the city’s hospitals and recommended which should close and which should remain open.
“When the Berger Commission looked at St. Vincent’s, their conclusion was that hospital’s patients could not be absorbed by any other hospital,” Schwartz said. “The Berger Commission recommended that St. Vincent’s stay open, and that money be allocated to the hospital.”
Schwartz noted that the commission’s report “was adopted by the state Legislature,” and that “the Berger Commission had the authority to order hospitals to close.”
Schwartz is also using as evidence a statement that a representative of the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management made when testifying before the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission on St. Vincent’s rebuilding plan: that St. Vincent’s was the only Downtown Manhattan hospital not in the storm flood plain. In addition, the attorney noted, a representative of the Mayor’s Office had testified at the same hearing that St. Vincent’s was one of only four level 1 trauma centers in Manhattan, with the other one on the West Side being St. Luke’s far uptown.
Hospital on the Hudson?
As for where a new hospital would go, Schwartz offered a surprising “alternative site” — Pier 40.
The decaying 14-acre pier, at W. Houston St. in the Hudson River Park, is “crying out for a major project,” he said. “Why not a hospital? They’d have to modify the structure. It wouldn’t be a bad place for ambulances to pull in and out of.”
Schwartz said a hospital could fit in the pier’s north shed, which he estimated has at least 200,000 square feet of space.
The Hudson River Park Trust desperately needs funds to renovate the crumbling pier; two past efforts to find a private developer to do the job have failed.
Schwartz said there’s no way that St. Vincent’s Greenwich Village campus will ever see another hospital.
“Because they have a billion dollars in debt and will sell the property to pay off the debt,” Schwartz said.
An urgent-care center, as the state plans to implement in Greenwich Village, simply doesn’t provide a high enough level of healthcare, Schwartz stated. He likened urgent care to DOCS — the health clinics run by Beth Israel Medical Group — which has locations on W. 23rd and E. 34th Sts. Patients walk in and wait, sometimes for up to three hours, to see a doctor — though more pressing cases might be seen more quickly.
“It’s just for flu and colds and broken bones and cuts and scrapes. If you read the R.F.P., that’s all it says,” Schwartz said, referring to the request for proposals the state issued for the Village urgent-care clinic, which was awarded to Lenox Hill Hospital.
Only basic procedures would be done. If a broken bone required the insertion of a pin, for example, the urgent-care clinic wouldn’t be able to do it, and the patient would have to be transported to a nearby hospital, he noted.
Hits lawsuit as hype
Schwartz, who is an elected official — a member of the state Democratic Committee — took a shot at Kurland’s lawsuit, dubbing it “a publicity stunt.” He said he had warned her it would only wind up in bankruptcy court.
“Yetta went into court and asked to keep St. Vincent’s from closing — after it had closed,” Schwartz said. “She just went ahead and did it because it got her headlines for a couple of days.”
Schwartz said suing to keep the hospital from closing was a losing proposition.
“I didn’t talk about St. Vincent’s because St. Vincent’s was gone,” he said of his own lawsuit. “That corporation, that’s finished — that’s never coming back.”
He said he saw no vast conspiracy in the 161-year-old hospital’s failure and abrupt closing.
“They were borrowing and borrowing, and they finally ran out of the ability to borrow any more money,” he said.
“There’s a lot of anger at the elected officials for not doing enough,” Schwartz acknowledged. “The doctors and nurses, in particular — they think that [state Senator Tom] Duane and Quinn and [Borough President] Scott Stringer didn’t do enough.
Yetta’s sort of picking up on that, and I think she’s using that to begin her campaign for 2013,” Schwartz stated. He noted that hospital workers had heckled Duane when he spoke at an April 24 rally outside St. Vincent's.
"What ya gonna do? What ya gonna do?" the workers chanted at Duane, demanding specifics — not generalities — about how to save the hospital, which closed a week later.
“You can see it on YouTube,” Schwartz said.
Told that Schwartz had blasted her lawsuit as a “publicity stunt,” Kurland turned the other cheek, and said she’s rooting for his lawsuit.
“If he can stop the R.F.P. [from going to contract], then it’s a victory,” she said of the implementation of the urgent-care plan.
“I want to lovingly challenge Arthur to be a part of the solution,” Kurland said.
“Quite frankly, if publicity gets involved, it’s helpful,” she added, deflecting his barb.
“We can’t get caught up in personalities,” she cautioned. “There’s so much more at stake.”
More to the point, Kurland and her supporters claim that her keeping the pressure on has helped shift the discussion away from settling for the urgent-care plan and back to demanding a full-service hospital.
Major meeting — May 21
Indeed, Duane is the lead sponsor of Friday’s “educational panel,” titled “How Can We Get Back a Hospital for Our Community?” at 5 p.m., at Our Lady of Pompei Church, at Carmine and Bleecker Sts. (entrance on Bleecker St.) The panel’s co-sponsors include Quinn, Stringer, Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Richard Gottfried, state Senator Daniel Squadron, City Councilmember Margaret Chin and Community Boards 1, 2, 3 and 4. The meeting is open to the public.