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Even in a pandemic, SUNY’s teaching hospitals must fight for funding

What will it take to get the state of New York to make a significant—and long-needed—investment in SUNY’s public teaching hospitals?

I’m really not sure. Here we are, in the second year of an ongoing pandemic, and there are zero dollars in direct state aid—which we refer to as critical mission funding—budgeted for our public teaching hospitals in Brooklyn, Stony Brook and Syracuse.

Let me explain. For years, the hospitals received critical mission funding from the state, upwards of more than $150 million annually. Under an agreement between SUNY and the state, the hospitals would use the money to help cover the costs of salaries, benefits and debt service.

That changed with the Great Recession. The state began cutting the hospitals’ critical mission funding year after year. It was eliminated altogether in 2018.

Since then, our hospitals have been forced to pay for those expenses, which includes tens of millions in existing debt service for necessary capital improvements made to the facilities. It hasn’t been easy for the hospitals to dig out of that debt.

In her proposed 2022-2023 Executive Budget, Gov. Kathy Hochul set aside $150 million in capital funding for the hospitals. We appreciate that funding. However, it’s likely that those funds will go unspent. Why? Because the hospitals are so mired in debt from past capital projects that they can’t afford to take on any new ones!

For years, United University Professions, the union I lead, has called for the state to restore critical mission funding to the hospitals and to absorb the hospitals’ existing capital debt.

We were hopeful that the governor would restore this necessary funding for our hospitals. When we realized that these important initiatives went unfunded, we were frustrated but in no way defeated. We intend to work closely with lawmakers to rectify these inequities. We’ve also planned an ad campaign to urge the Legislature to restore these funds to our hospitals.

Certainly, Gov. Hochul recognizes the need to fix New York’s broken health care system and we appreciate the steps she’s taken to do so in her Executive Budget. She set aside $10 billion to improve health care in New York and rebuild our depleted health care workforce.

More than a tenth of that, $1.2 billion, is for worker retention bonuses of up to $3,000 for health care workers—many of whom were on the front lines of the pandemic.

We are grateful that some of the members we represent at SUNY’s hospitals are eligible for these bonuses. They certainly deserve them. But they, as well as the patients they care for, deserve much more. We can deliver the change they deserve by investing in SUNY’s public teaching hospitals.

Our hospitals, and the resolute, hard-working people who work there, were there for all of us in the early days of the pandemic, as they are there for us now. Health care providers on the front lines of the pandemic put their lives on the line, working extra hours and taking extra shifts to care for COVID-19 patients who filled beds at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn, Stony Brook University Hospital in Stony Brook and Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.

They, like everyone else at the time, was unvaccinated because a vaccine hadn’t been developed yet. Not only did they put themselves in harm’s way but they also risked bringing COVID home to their families.

Our hospitals have cared for thousands of COVID patients and have distributed tens of thousands of COVID vaccines. SUNY Downstate, which was at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City in March and April of 2020, was designated as a COVID-only hospital, a designation that remained in place for months. At Upstate, Dr. Frank Middleton—a UUP member—developed a saliva test to detect COVID that’s ranked No. 1 in the nation by the Food and Drug Administration.

And keep this in mind: SUNY’s public teaching hospitals care for everyone who walks through their doors, even if patients can’t afford to pay for that care. Our hospitals treat more than 1.3 million patients each year, including many with especially difficult, rare or hard-to-treat conditions that other hospitals aren’t equipped to care for—in many cases because it costs too much.

Our hospitals provide a public good. They are not out to make a profit. They exist for two reasons: to care for the most vulnerable New Yorkers and to train the next generation of doctors and health care providers—which is more important now than it ever was.

SUNY’s hospitals were there for New York when New York needed them. Now, it’s time for the state to do what’s right for our hospitals and the patients that depend on them.

Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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