And the Fight Goes On…and On…and On

By Penny Mintz

TRAFFIC GOES BY THE NEW YORK EYE AND EAR INFIRMARY OF MOUNT SINAI at night. The East Village institution has been serving downtown Manhattan since 1820. Photo by Bob Cooley.

When Mount Sinai bought Beth Israel ten years ago, the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary (NYEEI) was part of the deal.

We all know what Mount Sinai tried to do with Beth Israel. Rather than modernize and upgrade the hospital, as it had promised when the sale was approved, Mount Sinai was soon closing profitable units and then asserting that it had to close the entire hospital because it was draining money. It was obvious that the goal all along had been to sell the valuable real estate on which the hospital was located. Mount Sinai behaves like a real estate mogul, not a provider of health services. For now, Beth Israel is still a functioning hospital because COVID got in the way.

Mount Sinai is following the same playbook with the NYEEI which has been a renowned teaching hospital and one-stop shop for vision and hearing health care. Doctors could send their patients to colleagues within the same building for all levels of care. And then Mount Sinai stepped in and started shutting units and moving services out.

But this time, unbeknownst to Mount Sinai, it had locked horns with the dedicated doctors of NYEEI whose hearts were being broken by the devastation being wrought. The doctors did not take it lying down.

Working with Assembly Member Harvey Epstein, Andrew Berman of the Village Historical Society, and the coalition that had struggled against the closing of Beth Israel, the NYEEI doctors, led by Dr. Paul Lee, organized a demonstration outside of the infirmary. On July 31, 2023, they were joined by such notables as Congress Member Jerrold Nadler, State Senator Kristen Gonzalez, City Council Member Carlina Rivera, 1199 workers, and healthcare and disability advocates, including Dr. Sharon McLennon-Wier, Executive Director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled, and Mike Schweinsburg, President of the 504 Democratic Club, a city-wide organization that advocates for the civil rights of disabled people.

Dr. Lee’s coalition had already won a massive battle before the New York State Public Health and Health Planning Council (PHHPC). That body refused to approve Mount Sinai’s application to merge NYEEI into Mount Sinai, which would have enabled Mount Sinai to relocate parts of NYEEI all over the city and then proceed to sell the real estate. As a result of the PHHPC decision, the Department of Health prohibited the closing of any clinical programs and services and required the inclusion of the community in developing plans for the future of NYEEI.

What the community wants is clear from the demonstration on July 31st. It wants to keep NYEEI open as a distinct facility providing the full range of integrated services in one campus. It wants the already closed or moved services to be restored at the site on 14th Street and Second Avenue. It wants to restore and preserve NYEEI’s stellar history as a research facility. It wants to restore NYEEI’s board of directors and self-governance. And, it wants the downtown community included in developing plans for NYEEI’s future.

Trying to get Mount Sinai to preserve health services downtown is like playing a game of whack-a-mole. Every time Mount Sinai is kept from stripping services and selling real estate in one place, it pops up with the same plan in another place. The goal of this non-tax-paying, allegedly “not-for-profit” corporation is not to provide the best possible health services. It is to maximize their profits. For the doctors, nurses and elected officials and community activists struggling against that corporate behemoth and all their resources and powerful connections, it is simply exhausting.