Tag Archives: Queens

Community Input When a Hospital Closes

As we have written about before, the community of Southeast Queens has long experienced some of the worst health outcomes in New York City across a variety of measures.  No doubt, the shuttering last year of both Mary Immaculate Hospital in Jamaica and St. John’s Queens Hospital in Elmhurst has only placed additional strains on the already insufficient healthcare infrastructure in Queens, and on Southeast Queens in particular. These and other hospital closures occurred without any input from community members – the very people who utilized the services that these hospitals provided were left unable to make their voices heard on how the closure would affect them, and on what healthcare services they thought were critical for the community.

In order to ensure that communities affected by future hospital closures would have at least some voice in the process, Assembly Member Rory Lancman and State Senator Shirley Huntley introduced the Hospital Closure Planning Act. This original bill would have required the Commissioner of Health to hold a “public hearing” within 30 days of a proposed hospital closure in order to assess the impact a hospital closure would have on the area it serves.

Despite the overwhelming support in the legislature, as well as advocacy in support of the bill from Southeast Queens United in Support of Healthcare (SQUISH) among others, Governor Patterson vetoed that initial bill.  Now, after negotiating with DOH and the Governor–and, importantly, after the closure of St. Vincent’s in Manhattan, which, in contrast to the hospital closures in Queens garnered significant and vocal opposition from a notably wide range of politicians and stakeholders –the Governor signed a revised version of the bill.

As Assembly Member Lancman said last week, “The government has to, at least, make an effort to let communities affected by a hospital closure know how their healthcare needs will be addressed. We may not be able to stop a hospital from closing, but we ought to be able to measure the impact of that closing and come up with a plan for serving the residents who relied on that hospital for healthcare services.”

The revised bill requires the Commissioner to hold a “community forum” within 30 days after a hospital closure to hear from affected community members.  After the forum, the Commissioner must also release a written report on the anticipated impact of the closure to the community, as well as the Department of Health’s plans to mitigate the negative effects of the closure and to ensure continued access to healthcare.

To be sure, the Act is only a small first step in making sure that low-income communities of color most in need receive equal access to quality health care. Nevertheless, it is an important one in that it begins to recognize the community’s role in health planning.

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Proton Beams or Primary Care

Crain’s Health Pulse, the New York health industry rag, has been abuzz for the last couple of weeks with news about health services in Queens.  Specifically, there’s been a lot of talk about a proposed “proton beam cancer center” to be located on the former site of Mary Immaculate Hospital (“MIH”), and to be funded by “500 rich foreigners” (for real).  Readers of this blog will recall that we have been collaborating with a community-based coalition, Southeast Queens United in Support of Healthcare (SQUISH), for several years, first working with coalition members to keep MIH from shutting down and now partnering with them to advocate for health services to fill the void created by the hospital’s closure.  The question is: does a proton beam cancer center fill that void, even in part?

And the truth is we’re not really sure.  On the one hand, cancer is one of the leading causes of death in Jamaica, Queens, resulting in 3,636 potential years of life lost in the area according to the NYC Department of Health.  Proton beam therapy is basically a way to offer cancer radiation treatment that is more targeted and less likely to impact healthy tissue surrounding the cancerous cells.  Considering these facts, a proton beam cancer center would seem to be a good thing because it offers cutting-edge treatment for a disease that kills a lot of people in Southeast Queens.

On the other hand, no one knows if the proposed cancer center would actually be affordable or accessible to most of the residents of Southeast Queens.  Will it accept public health insurance plans like Medicare and Medicaid?  Will it have sliding fee scales for the uninsured and under-insured?  If not, then the proton beam cancer center will hardly fill the enormous gaps in health access that plague the neighborhoods of Southeast Queens, and will serve instead as a lily pad for rich foreigners who can hop in and out of Queens for their high-end treatment from nearby JFK airport.  Viewed from this perspective, the proton beam cancer center isn’t worth celebrating; what is needed is more primary care and hospital beds.  Indeed, just recently, Crain’s also reported that the intensive care units of hospitals in Queens are themselves in a state of acute stress — over-capacity by over 200% in some cases.

There is no doubt that the Southeast Queens community needs more health services.  As we’ve written before, in New York City and in other major metropolitan areas across the country there is a close relationship race, place and access to healthcare services, and Southeast Queens is a prime example of the mis-match between healthcare need and resources.  In the wake of MIH’s closure, it is unclear whether wave-of-the-future technology like proton beam cancer therapy is really what the doctor ordered, or if it would simply be better to have some old school primary and preventative care services that would help people avoid getting gravely ill in the first place.  In an effort to better understand the implications of the center on their community, members of SQUISH are considering reaching out to the State Department of Health to find out more about the proposal and make their concerns known.  We will keep you apprised of any developments, but, in the meantime, don’t be shy!  Let us know through your comments here if you live in Southeast Queens and have any opinions on the matter.  We look forward to hearing from you.

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Squeaky Wheels: Community Advocacy and Healthcare in Southeast Queens

This post is by Equal Justice Works Fellow Seth Cohen, an attorney at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI). Seth’s EJW Fellowship is sponsored by Johnson & Johnson and Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP.

As we have written about in previous posts, Southeast Queens is a low-income community of color that has long experienced some of the worst health outcomes in New York City across a variety of measures. Despite this, and despite the fact that this community—long designated a Medically Underserved Area—has experienced a continuing trend of healthcare disinvestment. Consider this: over the past year, three hospitals that served Southeast Queens have closed; there are only 48 full-time primary care doctors per 100,000 people in Southeast Queens, almost 2/3 less than in whiter neighborhoods in Queens. All the while, Southeast Queens has the unenviable distinction of having abysmal health outcomes, including some of highest rates of infant mortality, low birth weight, and diabetes in the City.

One might think that the New York State Department of Health (DOH), the state government entity that handles all things health, would move quickly to shore up health services in a community with such a critical shortage of services and such a critical need for them. To its credit, DOH awarded $30 million in HEAL NY grants to spur healthcare services development borough-wide. Southeast Queens United in Support of Healthcare (SQUISH), a community-led coalition, advocated for allocating part of those funds toward fundamental healthcare services that Southeast Queens needs most: primary care; emergency care; and inpatient beds. The DOH grant disbursements signaled a first step—over $5 million was awarded to two community health centers that serve Southeast Queens.

Nevertheless, the grants did little to directly address the community’s most critical needs. For an area that has seen a disproportionate share of hospital and clinic closures in the borough, Southeast Queens simply did not receive funding proportionate to the critical need and unacceptable health outcomes the community faces. Indeed, it ultimately received the least amount of HEAL funding as compared to other areas in Queens.

Part of the difficulty for Southeast Queens—or any low-income community of color in New York, for that matter—is the fact that New York lacks any meaningful, structured way for people who live in the community and who use healthcare services there to provide ground-level input to DOH as to what they see as the most pressing health concerns, and how to best address those concerns. As it currently stands, DOH seems to turn a blind eye to the very individuals who actually utilize healthcare services. This perspective, though, is questionable at best, and will certainly not lead to a reduction of health inequities any time soon.

According to the National Partnership for Action to End Health Disparities, an initiative launched by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, such ground-level input is essential to eradicate health disparities. Three of the primary actions the Partnership calls for include:

  • Create opportunities to engage stakeholders from all sectors in discussions and actions to ensure community responsiveness and accountability toward ending existing health disparities;
  • Create mechanisms for individuals (e.g., residents, advocates) who have been affected by, or concerned with, health disparities to share their stories with the public and decision makers at all levels
  • Develop or support efforts to educate legislators and elected officials about health disparities and the determinants of health

Notwithstanding these recommendations, DOH has continued to take a hands-off stance, maintaining that it is merely a “neutral” government entity unable to actively engage in or commit to correcting the systemic health inequities that persist in the community. As dispassionate and impervious as this may sound, DOH has indicated, however, that it was up to community residents to work with elected officials and other stakeholders to locate and negotiate with healthcare providers who would be willing to serve the community. Only then might DOH get involved.

So, this is exactly what SQUISH has started to do.

SQUISH has initiated conversations with Addabbo Family Health Care to prepare for leveraging any future federal dollars from healthcare reform to bring additional Federally Qualified Health Clinics (that serve predominantly Medically Underserved Areas like Southeast Queens) to the neighborhood.

SQUISH also recently met with elected officials—including Assembly Members William Scarborough, Michelle Titus, Barbara Clark, and New York City Council Member Leroy Comrie—to begin to hammer out a plan to effectively address healthcare needs in the near-term and also to craft a long-term plan to ensure quality healthcare delivery in Southeast Queens.

There is also the matter of figuring out how to influence next steps at the site of Mary Immaculate Hospital, the now-defunct hospital in Jamaica that went bankrupt and shuttered its doors approximately one year ago. The current owners of the site have indicated they “envision[] several options for redeveloping the Mary Immaculate site, including an educational facility, nonprofit organization use, government operations or a religious facility.” No doubt you can see what redevelopment option is curiously absent from this list: reusing the site to provide health services to the community. While reopening a hospital may prove a challenging enterprise, it is not unheard of. The communities of Watts and Willowbrook, low-income communities of color in Los Angeles, California that are similarly medically underserved, were recently successful in forging a pact with various stakeholders to reopen their community hospital, the King/Drew Medical Center, using federal stimulus funds. As put by one community resident affected by the lack of local healthcare services put it,

“The fact that we are in the richest and most affluent society in the world yet don’t have health and medical infrastructures in key urban cities to take care of potentially life-threatening situations is the reason we should have hospitals in communities, particularly underserved communities with large populations of uninsured.”

Three thousand miles from Watts, this sentiment is equally applicable  in Southeast Queens as SQUISH continues to advocate for healthcare for its community.

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Hospital Mismanagement and the Perpetuation of Racial and Ethnic Disparities

This post, by the Director of NYLPI’s Health Justice Program, originally appeared on the blog of the Committee of Interns & Residents, which is fighting for the right to unionize at St. Barnabas Hospital.  You can read more about CIR’s efforts here.

Last summer, on her wedding night, Juana R. arrived at the St. Barnabas Hospital emergency department with severe abdominal pain.  A Spanish-speaker, Ms. R. needed an interpreter to communicate effectively with her providers, but she was never given one.  Instead, from the moment of her arrival at the ED, to her transfer to the ICU, to her eventual discharge a month later, she was systematically silenced by the hospital.  Invasive tests and procedures were performed without obtaining Ms. R.’s consent (she signed a litany of documents in English only).  Various medication regimens were attempted, many of which caused extreme pain and nausea, but Ms. R had no way of properly communicating these problems to her providers.  Only after legal intervention did this patient receive the communication assistance services she needed in order to understand her diagnosis and the reason for her admission.  Now, over a year after her discharge from Barnabas, Ms. R. remains emphatic that she will never again return to the hospital for care. She describes what she endured as a nightmare. [1]

As previously reported on this blog, Ms. R.’s case resulted in St. Barnabas Hospital being cited by the State Department of Health for failure to comply with public health regulations.  More broadly, her experience speaks to the ways in which poor hospital administration can compromise patient care and exacerbate racial and ethnic disparities in health care.

Well-known studies about the relationship between race and health care have focused on the individual patient-provider interaction – on how inter-personal biases and prejudices can sway treatment decisions.  However, in my experience as a civil rights lawyer in this field, I have found that institutional racism is a more salient factor than individual animus in explaining my clients’ negative encounters with the health care system.  Patients like Ms. R. are denied the interpretation services to which they are entitled not because of the ill will of particular caregivers, but because, more typically, hospitals like Barnabas are not managed well enough to have the policies and practices in place to ensure timely access to important support services – a systems failure that hurts patients and providers.

My office has also found that, across the city, health care institutions will steer Medicaid and uninsured patients, who are disproportionately people of color, into poorly equipped and under-staffed clinic settings while “better” patients (i.e. white, privately insured patients) are sent to the faculty practices.  At the broadest level, this upward redistribution of health care resources has meant that hospitals located in New York City’s low-income communities of color have closed down over the past decade, while facilities located in more affluent white communities have thrived.  In some cases, the hospitals that shut their doors had patient populations that were over 90% African-American, Latino and Asian.

Viewed in this way, the primary way to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in health care is to overhaul the institutions that create and perpetuate racial and economic disparities within medicine.  This means more people like Ms. R. stepping forward and demanding investigations of unlawful practices at hospitals like St. Barnabas.  It also means more communities raising their voices against hospital policies that enrich some while impoverishing others.  Ultimately, it means more of us—all of us—speaking out against health care institutions designed to promote private gain over the public’s health.


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Saving Health Care in Queens

This post, about our ongoing efforts to encourage investment in health care in Southeast Queens, first appeared on the Equal Justice Works blog.

This is a guest post from Equal Justice Works Fellow Seth Cohen, an attorney at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI). Seth is a graduate of Brooklyn Law School and is sponsored by Johnson & Johnson and Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP.

When NYLPI helped organize the Southeast Queens United in Support of Healthcare (SQUISH) coalition back in 2006, they may not have realized how big a role they’d have to play in developing New York’s health policy.  Today, SQUISH is an independent community coalition that continues to give a voice to New Yorkers desperate for adequate medical care by raising awareness about issues that affect the delivery of services and advocating against the reduction and removal of critical health services.  As part of NYLPI, I help provide legal and technical support on health policy issues for the organization.

Recently, local health facilities have been coping with the strain of hospital closures, including St. John’s Hospital and Mary Immaculate Hospital, bringing the total number of Queens hospitals closed in the last year to three. In response, $30 million in grants has been awarded by the State to be split among 12 medical facilities in the borough – four in Southeast Queens.

SQUISH and many advocates say this is a great first step, but argue that this isn’t enough. I agree. It is vital for health care in Southeast Queens – which is racially and ethnically diverse as well as severely medically under-served – to be improved, and the Department of Health has signaled an interest in doing so. But the State government is still responsible for coordinating a plan for the future of health care delivery in Queens. One suggestion is that a task force of all stakeholders be convened – including community leaders – around health care concerns in the area.

Read more about the grant and health care issues facing Queens here: http://www.queenstribune.com/news/1254415740.html.


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Place Matters

A recent article in the American Prospect about the De-Facto Segregation of Health Care has been getting a lot of attention, at least in the media that we read, and for good reason.  It points out the uncomfortable truth that race matters in health care, which means, in part, that place matters too.  As the article notes:

Ongoing de-facto segregation has a profound effect on the quality of care to which people of color — insured or otherwise — have access. While the health-care bills being debated in Congress would expand access to and quality of care for people of color, ultimately racial health disparities can’t be eliminated without better distribution of health resources.

Consider a community in which we do a lot of work: Southeast Queens.  Take a look at this map, lifted from a website developed by our friends at the Opportunity Agenda:

SEQ

This is a slice of Queens that represents the dividing line between the Northwest and the Southeast of the borough.  The darker an area is shaded, the higher the percentage of people of color living in that area.  De-facto segregation, anyone?  Now check out those little plus signs, which represent hospitals.  Notice how few–i.e. none–of them are actually located in the darker-shaded portion of the map.  And, in fact, one of the hospitals right on the border recently closed — a common occurrence in communities of color across the country.

Now compare the availability of hospitals and the demographics on the Southeast side of Queens to the east side of Manhattan:

bedpanalley

The absence of hospitals in Southeast Queens, and their over-abundance in white communities of the city, would be less of a problem if people in the area could actually access the primary or preventative care they need to prevent hospitalizations and trips to the emergency room.   But, of course, the lack of hospitals isn’t the whole story.  The New York State Department of Health recently issued a report on health care services in Queens, which notes that Southeast Queens has the lowest ratio of doctors to population in the entire borough.  There are 48 full-time equivalent (FTE) primary care doctors per 100,000 population in Southeast Queens compared to 132 FTE’s per 100,000 in the Flushing/Clearview area.  This report also indicates that there are 75 primary care clinics in Queens, but of the 75 clinics listed only 40 could be confirmed as primary care clinics available to members of the community at large.  Several of the clinics are for special populations only (e.g. children, women), and of the remaining 40 primary care clinics, only 22 are located in Southern Queens.

Pointing out geographic and resource disparities like this isn’t just a complaint about who-gets-what; it is a matter of life and death for many.  As the American Prospect piece notes:

Even when people of color are covered [by insurance], their access to quality care is diminished heavily by ongoing segregation and poverty; in nonwhite neighborhoods, it’s simply harder to find a primary provider than it is in white neighborhoods. The facilities that exist are often of lower quality and lack the resources institutions located in primarily white areas have. What this means is that even when minorities are covered by health insurance, they’re less likely to have quality care and less able to afford the associated out-of-pocket expenses — and the results are staggering.  Children born to black women are more than twice as likely to die within their first year of life as are children born to white women. This disparity is unaffected by income or education level.

So, what can be done?  Well, many things, but in Southeast Queens the most immediate action is being taken by a community coalition we work with called Southeast Queens United in Support of Health Care (SQUISH).  When the State Department of Health published its report, it also announced that $30 million would be available in grants to develop health care services in the borough.  SQUISH is reaching out to elected officials, community residents, local health care providers and the media to raise awareness about the need for some of that funding to be directed toward Southeast Queens.  For a list of SQUISH’s asks, check out their talking points.  Because green shouldn’t always follow white, and where you live shouldn’t be one of the primary determinants for how soon you die.

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