By Penny Mintz
Mount Sinai’s website boasts that the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary “is one of the world’s leading facilities for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the eyes, ears, nose, and throat” and one of the busiest specialty hospitals in the country. Nevertheless, Mount Sinai has been dismantling it and appears to intend to sell the real estate out from under it. That is exactly what they sought to do with Beth Israel Hospital before the COVID pandemic showed them the error of their ways.
Since 2013, when Mount Sinai bought the NYEE (and Beth Israel Hospital), Mount Sinai has reduced the number of surgical rooms at the historic building on Second Avenue and 13th Street from 18 to nine. Some surgery has been sent to Beth Israel, and other surgery is performed at ambulatory centers. Mount Sinai moved the nose and throat practices all the way up to its main campus on Madison Avenue and 98th Street. The ear practice was moved to Union Square. Resident services have been moved to a different location on Second Avenue. The faculty practice is now on Madison Square, where it is far from the locations where actual medicine is practiced.
The fracturing of NYEE isn’t merely a loss for the downtown community. The Infirmary is recognized throughout the region as a premier facility for the treatment of patients in this specialty area, no matter what their ability to pay.
Like its treatment of Beth Israel, Mount Sinai’s interest in NYEE appears to primarily be in the value of the real estate on which it sits, not on the provision of care to the community and the city as a whole.
“Mount Sinai is operating more like a real estate conglomerate than a healthcare provider,” says Michael Schweinsberg, the president of the 504 Democratic Club, a citywide organization that focuses on the needs of people with disabilities. “They are using the same blueprint as they did with Beth Israel,” says Schweinsberg. They are closing down profitable units “so that they can plead financial hardship when in fact it was a self-inflicted injury.”
According to Schweinsberg, the dismantling of NYEE “is a direct attack on the disability community.” People with limited sight or limited hearing, he says, will be severely impacted by the need to travel to far-flung locations only to receive a lower level of care.
Doctors at the infirmary are in agreement. They mourn the loss of the synergy among the doctors and the loss of efficient and caring treatment for patients. Accordingly, they have spearheaded a struggle to stop Mount Sinai from continuing to the splinter the facility. One thought they had was to seek historic preservation status for the building that houses the infirmary. Presumably, if the building cannot be torn down and replaced with luxury housing, then the value of the property will be significantly diminished. Without the draw of the estimated $70 million that Mount Sinai could reportedly get for the unprotected NYEE buildings, perhaps Mount Sinai would reconsider its strategy of buying up established medical resources in order to sell the real estate. It was this strategy that brought Andrew Berman into the effort.
Andrew Berman is the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Berman tells us that NYEE first opened over 200 years ago and is the oldest specialized hospital in the Western Hemisphere. The infirmary has been in its current building since 1903, when Helen Keller cut the ribbon for the official opening.
Lately, Berman has been working with the doctors and staff in a campaign to landmark the historic NYEE building on Second Avenue and 13th Street in order to save the threatened building. But in recent weeks, that effort has been enlarged to include a coalition of community groups and elected officials.
A community coalition had coalesced around the effort to save Beth Israel when Mount Sinai shut down one department after another in 2017 and made it clear to doctors and nurses that the hospital was going to be closed and the building was going to be sold. Much of that coalition has reconstituted itself in the effort to save NYEE. This includes State Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, who was a member of the fledgling Progressive Action of Lower Manhattan in 2017. Epstein had led PALM members in the struggle to save Beth Israel and, before being elected to the State Assembly, he suggested that PALM organize community groups to enlarge that effort. Epstein continued to be part of that struggle as an elected official, and now he is a central figure in the effort to preserve NYEE.
Besides PALM and the NYEE doctors’ alumni association, other leaders in that effort are Mark Hannay, executive director of the Metro New York Health Care for All, and Lois Uttley, senior advisor for the Hospital Equity and Accountability Project at Community Catalyst. Gregory Lavine, of Mercury Public Affairs, who has taken on the role of central organizer for the effort.
The group is currently working to get the support of elected officials, unions, and community boards. Other public actions and press conferences are being planned for the near future.