Hospital Staff and Community Efforts at NYEE Gains Big Win

Now It’s Up To Governor Hochul

By Arthur Z. Schwartz

Mount Sinai Beth Israel’s attempt at an under-the-radar plan to sell off precious East Village real estate (packaged as a “merger of Beth Israel-Mt. Sinai Hospital with New York Eye and Ear Infirmary) hit a roadblock when a key New York State Department of Health committee declined in late February to approve the hospital system’s proposed merger.

Why should folks who have never used NY Eye and Ear (located at 2nd Avenue at 14th Street) care? Because it is a playbook which has been used all over New York City to reduce hospital capacity, and eliminate hospital services for all NYC residents. If Mt. Sinai is stopped here hospital activists believe that the loss of services, which was put on hold at the beginning of the COVID Pandemic, will not resume.

FOR THE LAST YEAR, A POLITICAL EFFORT TO STOP THE MERGER/CLOSURE has been led by staff at Mount Sinai Hospital and NY State Assembly Member Harvey Epstein, and has been joined by activists in the movement to stop hospital closures, along with Progressive Action of Lower Manhattan (PALM), which played a key role in stopping the full closure of Beth Israel Hospital. Photo by Greg Lavine, Mercury LLC.

Mount Sinai is the parent corporation of NYEEI. The Infirmary owns two buildings and some vacant land on Second Avenue between East 13th and East 14th streets, which local real estate brokers say could fetch up to $70 million if sold for apartment-building construction.(One building, 218 Second Ave., dates to 1902).

The merger would allow Beth Israel to absorb NYEEI’s assets. Beth Israel reported a $159 million operating loss (following its closure of heart surgery, maternity and pediatric surgery units in 2017) and just under $18 million in net assets in 2021, while Eye and Ear that year had a $4 million deficit (also with profitable services being moved out) but over $138 million in net assets.

For the last year, a political effort to stop the merger/closure has been led by medical staff at the hospital and NY State Assembly Member Harvey Epstein, and has been joined by activists in the movement to stop hospital closures, and Progressive Action of Lower Manhattan (PALM), which played a key role in stopping the full closure of Beth Israel Hospital.

Doctors and Community Activists testified before the Public Health and Health Planning Council (PHHPC). The PHHPC consists of the Commissioner of Health and 25 members. Membership on the Council is required to reflect the diversity of the State’s population, including the State’s various geographic areas and population densities. The members must include representatives of the public health system, health care providers that comprise the state’s health care delivery system, and individuals with expertise in the clinical and administrative aspects of health care delivery, in issues affecting health care consumers, health planning, health care financing and reimbursement, in health care regulation and compliance, and in public health practice. The PHHPC makes recommendations to the Commissioner of Health on Certificate of Need (CON) applications by health care providers including hospitals , diagnostic and treatment centers, and nursing homes. Though it sounds diverse, it has rarely, if ever, failed to approve a proposal from a major health care entity like Mt. Sinai.

But on February 9 the PHHPC did not muster the two-thirds vote it needed to send the proposal to the State Health Commissioner, who has the final say.

Dr. Howard Berliner, a DOH panel member who voted against the merger last week, alluded at the hearing to concerns that Mount Sinai aimed to dismantle NYEEI so that it could cash in on a property sale.

“If I was a real estate developer I would be drooling at the prospect of getting the [NYEEI] site in the East Village, probably one of the hottest markets in New York City,” Berliner said.

As we reported over the last two months, Mount Sinai has been slowly relocating facilities and staff from the Second Avenue sites to other locations that are part of the Mount Sinai Beth Israel network. The relocated departments included surgery, clinical and ambulatory units. The DOH panel, known as the New York Public Health and Health Planning Council, voted 11-6 to approve the merger, but it was three votes short of the number needed under the panel’s rules. Those who voted no said that among other issues, Mount Sinai had kept the community in the dark about its plans and dodged questions from the DOH itself.

The committee’s vote is not the final word, as it must be affirmed by DOH Acting Commissioner James V. McDonald, who was named to the post by Governor Hochul, on January 1. A source said it was “rare” for a commissioner to overrule the planning council. But Governor Hochul amassed millions of dollars in contributions to her last campaign for Governor from real estate developers and owners in the health care industry. It remains to be seen if McDonald will cross her.

The merger plan is a necessary step toward dismantling the Infirmary to facilitate a sale of the property. If Mount Sinai’s proposal is ultimately shot down, it means that any sale of the real estate would have to be approved by the NYEEI board—which would be dissolved in a merger.

State and city officials recently wrote to Mount Sinai CEO Kenneth Davis urging it to “pause” its proposal. The politicians as well as many NYEEI staff fear that the merger would essentially destroy the Infirmary and scatter its community-focused services all over the map, while preservationists (from Village Preservation) don’t want to see 218 Second Ave. demolished.

“We are still awaiting answers to questions we’ve asked of Mount Sinai throughout this process,” said the letter signed by Assembly members Harvey Epstein and Deborah Glick, state Sens. Brian Kavanagh and Brad Hoylman-Sigal, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and City Council members Carlina Rivera and Christopher Marte.

Dr. Richard Koplin, a longtime attending physician at NYEEI, hailed the panel’s vote as a “huge victory for the thousands of patients who receive care at the Infirmary every year, and for the doctors, elected leaders, and community members who have spoken up repeatedly to prevent the destruction of this 200-year old institution.

“Mount Sinai has been misleading and non-communicative about their plans for the hospital, and even referred to the fact that this is a precursor to selling the property,” Koplin said.

For the record, Mount Sinai said it is “not a fact” that the buildings are being sold. She denied that NYEEI is being dismantled and claimed the merger was necessary to protect the institution from losing its acute care hospital status.