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Time to end health care disparities in New York

Letitia "Tish" James | 1/2/2014, 2:20 p.m.

When one looks at the deep disparities in health care access for New Yorkers, we see the embodiment of the “Tale of Two Cities” that Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio articulated in his campaign.

There are parts of the city that have seen a considerable increase in health care services, including additional health care providers accompanying shiny, new facilities. On the Upper East Side, billionaire David Koch is funding $100 million in support of a new ambulatory surgery center. With Sloan-Kettering also expanding with a new mega-complex, the neighborhood will have two full–service hospitals and six specialty sites equipped with well over the current 2,000 inpatient beds.

The problem isn’t that the Upper East Side is getting too many facilities, it’s that all communities deserve to have this level of health care access, and that’s exactly what we should be aiming for. In Brooklyn, the 175,000 children and adults who look to Interfaith Medical Center even for primary care are being told that their access is going to shrink further. In one community district served by Interfaith, the infant mortality rate is almost twice the citywide average. This is no place to be shuttering medical facilities.

Two other Brooklyn hospitals serving low-income patients of color, Brookdale and Kingsbrook, just announced that they will be forced to lay off staff. Are we seeing more vital community hospitals in Brooklyn being dragged to the chopping block? Or is there another way to make these struggling hospitals financially sustainable? According to the New York Supreme Court, the Department of Health’s current procedure of approving plans to shutter hospitals without taking community needs into account is unconstitutional. When it comes to health care, the first consideration must be of the needs of the community. We must accommodate the needs of the community in the budget, not the needs of the budget in the community.

We must be able to work with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and leaders across the state to look at the health care crisis in New York. To this end, I look forward to joining community leaders and elected officials in meeting with Cuomo to address our health care challenges.

As part of the Medicaid Redesign Team, with a mission to reduce the Medicaid budget by more $2 billion, a special committee was set up to look at financially fragile hospitals. A committee of five people who did not proportionally represent our diverse communities recommended mergers of hospitals and the elimination of 1,200 hospital beds in Brooklyn alone.

Federal Medicaid money for vital safety-net facilities should go to hospitals that provide care for our most vulnerable city residents, especially those serving low-income communities of color. Federal health care funding cannot continue to be siphoned away for some areas while the rest continue to see unprecedented cuts.

A new day is beginning in New York. On this new day, there can be access to quality, affordable health care for all. On this new day, the millions of children who go to bed hungry only a short subway ride from Wall Street can have nourishment and security. On this new day, the 46 percent of New Yorkers at or below the poverty line can lead dignified lives with the resources they need to sustain themselves and to make good use of the liberty this country promises them.

This can be that day, but only if we work together to make it happen.