December 16, 2021
UUP seeks fair funding for SUNY hospitals
uupdate 12-16-21

The next state budget could be the last best hope for SUNY’s three teaching hospitals, which are short on staff and funding but are once again overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases.

UUP President Fred Kowal made that plea to state lawmakers in a Dec. 15 press conference at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, where the two hospitals at that campus are on the state’s list of 37 hospitals declared to be in emergency status because of the pandemic.

Hospitals on that list have a remaining inpatient capacity of 10% or less, and have either severely limited or halted elective procedures. Upstate is losing about $500,000 a month in revenue because of those restrictions during this latest surge of COVID-19 cases to hit the central Upstate New York region.

“I salute you, and I pledge to you that all I have done—all we have done—to honor your sacred labor is nothing compared to what we will do to ensure the future of these hospitals,” Kowal told an audience of more than 100, which included Upstate staff, state lawmakers, UUP members and SUNY students. “The record of neglect of the past decade is appalling.”

Advocating for SUNY early and often

The Upstate press conference was the third in a series of events UUP is holding at SUNY campuses to highlight the need for a state budget that realistically funds SUNY four-year colleges, universities and hospitals. The union is presenting its advocacy against the backdrop of its legislative agenda, titled “New York HEALS,” with the acronym representing different needs and programs that UUP has put forth, under the categories of health care, education, access, leadership and sustainability.

Joining Kowal was Mantosh Dewan, Upstate’s president; state Sen. Rachel May; Assemblymember Al Stirpe; Brie Hymes, a student in last summer’s pilot Medical Education Opportunity Program at Upstate; and Jennifer Satterlee, an Upstate medical occupational therapist who recounted how her child received effective treatment for a rare medical condition at Upstate.

The staff at SUNY’s four academic medical centers, in Buffalo, Syracuse, Brooklyn and Stony Brook, has been on overload for the nearly two years of the pandemic. A severe shortage of nurses—most of whom are represented by other unions—and other medical staff has added to the burden of UUP members at the academic medical centers.

At the height of the first surge in the spring of 2020, conditions at the SUNY teaching hospitals in Brooklyn and Stony Brook more resembled wartime field hospitals more than modern teaching hospitals. Desperately ill patients lay on gurneys in public waiting rooms-turned-triage centers, refrigerated trucks at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University stored bodies when the morgue ran out of room, staff reused single-use protective gear, and break rooms and waiting rooms became treatment areas. Upstate largely avoided the emergency conditions the other two hospitals suffered that spring, but Upstate has since been hit with two terrible surges from the pandemic, last fall and again this fall.

Good indicators from new governor

UUP has made gains for the hospital members, including an extension of the vacation accrual cap past the year-end deadline, and special pandemic overtime pay. But the hospitals were overlooked in this year’s state budget.

Former Gov. Cuomo eliminated the state operating funds for the hospitals years ago, and the SUNY hospitals are the only SUNY entities that must pay their own debt service. Lawmakers told UUP last spring that they recognized what the hospitals had endured, and they pledged their support, but they have little real power to override the governor’s wishes in the state budget, and in the end, the hospitals again got nothing.

UUP hopes that Gov. Kathy Hochul will demonstrate greater understanding of the hospitals’ needs. UUP got an early good indicator of what it will be like to work with the new governor when her administration cooperated with UUP to strike an agreement for special pandemic overtime pay for members.

As Kowal told reporters after the press conference, “We never had that level of understanding and cooperation with the previous administration.”

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