We Need to Keep New York Eye and Ear Infirmary Open and Serving Our Community

By Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, District 74

Since 1820, New York Eye and Ear Infirmary (NYEEI) has provided indispensable and high-quality eye, ear, nose, and throat care for working people, union families, retirees, immigrants, and other underserved and vulnerable communities in lower Manhattan and the surrounding area. NYEEI is a one-stop shop for eye and ear-related healthcare needs, serving 40,000 patients each year from its easy-to-access location in the heart of the East Side. The mix of services at a single site makes it accessible to New Yorkers who rely on them—many of whom face physical disabilities.

In January 2023, Mount Sinai Beth Israel (MSBI), NYEEI’s cash-strapped parent corporation, quietly applied for a Certificate of Need (CON) allowing it to merge with NYEEI as one legal entity, facilitating MSBI’s ability to control services at NYEEI. Through technological advancements, more healthcare services have trended towards outpatient care, and hospital giants like MSBI have had to identify alternate revenue streams, including the sale of their properties. Fearing the negative impact this merger could have on our community by paving the way for MSBI to gut services at the Infirmary, community groups, elected officials, and NYEEI doctors organized to attend the Public Health and Health Planning Council (PHHPC) meeting in January to oppose the merger. In February, the PHHPC heard our concerns and voted to not approve the merger, instead sending the application to the NYS Department of Health (DOH) without a recommendation. This was a historic win for the community.

This win was only amplified when the DOH signaled in a June letter to MSBI that its approval of the merger would be subject to ten conditions and contingencies that Mount Sinai must meet within one year. In the letter, the Department prohibits the closure of clinical programs and services as a result of the merger and stipulates a comprehensive community engagement plan that requires MSBI to explain its long-term plans for the Infirmary. On July 31st, I joined Senator Kristen Gonzalez, Congressman Jerry Nadler, doctors, and community leaders in a rally outside of NYEEI to send a clear message that stakeholders at the Infirmary and in the community will hold MSBI accountable to the conditions imposed by the Department of Health.

If this all sounds familiar, remember that in 2019 MSBI attempted to close the Beth Israel campus on East 16th Street and 1st Avenue—just a short walk away from the Infirmary. Had Mount Sinai succeeded then, we would have lost hundreds of in-patient beds which were desperately needed, especially during the height of the COVID pandemic. In the end, MSBI scuttled that plan and has instead begun to sell off its properties on East 17th Street, which, according to the hospital, have not been used for clinical purposes for years. I authored a letter, co-signed by Senator Kristen Gonzalez and Councilmember Carlina Rivera, asking MSBI to include in the deed restriction that all sales require the buyer to use Inclusionary Housing (IH) for any multifamily residential development that would occur on those properties. Inclusionary Housing significantly benefits our community because it requires that all new developments set aside permanently affordable housing.

The major health systems in our city have an obligation to provide care to our communities and to be good neighbors. When decisions that could affect the provision of care are contemplated, our community needs a seat at the table—that’s why we fought for and won the right to a comprehensive community engagement as Mount Sinai seeks a merger with the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary. Healthcare is a human right and we must all act with that priority in mind.