After protests and legal threats, LICH will resume accepting ambulances

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Dan Goldberg

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Less than 24 hours after telling nurses that Long Island College Hospital would be diverting basic life support cases to other hospitals, SUNY Downstate appears once again ready to accept ambulances.

The move came at the end of a confusing and chaotic day in which attorneys for the nurses' union as well as neighborhood groups and the public advocate's office scrambled into action after learning that the hospital's emergency room would divert ambulances.

The coalition of labor unions and community activists feared it was an attempt to close the hospital in violation of a court order to keep it open.

The confusion began Wednesday night when nurses were told that a full diversion was in effect. Linda O'Neil, who has worked at LICH for 30 years, said there was “absolutely no warning.”

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“It is the most dangerous thing that anyone who calls themselves health care professionals could do,” she said this morning. “This is an unlawful criminal attempt by SUNY.”

But it wasn't an attempt to permanently close the hospital, said David Doyle, spokesman for Downstate. It was simply a matter of not having enough staff on site.

"The medical staff in charge (Wednesday) evening were concerned because of limited staff and asked for diversion,” he said. “We spent the day today trying to get enough staff to safely operate the facility so basic life support ambulances could return but did not know until late this afternoon if we would be successful. We never stopped accepting patients or providing care, we just needed a temporary suspension of ambulance service.”

LICH is using doctors from other SUNY campuses to bolster the current staff, Doyle said, and could accept ambulances as soon as Friday morning.

Throughout the day, however, it was unclear if and when LICH would again accept ambulances, orwhether this was part of larger plan to close the financially troubled hospital.

"This is the second time in a week that SUNY trustees acted in a way that undercut LICH's ability to stay open and serve the area's communities," said Jill Furillo, executive director of the New York State Nurses Asociation. "That needs to stop once and for all."

Attorneys representing mayor-elect Bill de Blasio's office threatened to go to court and demand the hospital reopen or face financial penalties for every day it defied the court order. A hearing was scheduled for the afternoon but was postponed so the two sides could talk.

De Blasio made an issue of LICH's potential closure while on the campaign trail and as the city's public advocate, appearing at rallies and protests.

While no one disputes the hospital is hemmoraging cash, community activists, labor unions and de Blasio have said the hospital is too important to the community to close and have taken their case to court.

They won a clear victory earlier this year when State Supreme Court Justice Johnny Lee Baynes ordered Downstate in July to keep the hospital open. That ruling was upheld by the appellate court in October.

Jeff Strabone, a member of the board of the Cobble Hill Association, wasn't buying SUNY's statement that this was always meant as a temporary diversion.

"The Cobble Hill Association believes that last night's termination of ambulances and admissions was a deliberate act by SUNY to sabotage LICH," he said. "We don't know why the SUNY leadership got cold feet. Perhaps the speed and ferocity of the response by the community and our legal team made them think twice. That is only our speculation. We can say for sure: SUNY's diversion of ambulances has further undermined LICH's reputation and caused confusion among those who need care. We hope that SUNY's ongoing pattern of contempt for law will lead to criminal charges."

Supporters of LICH plan to hold a community meeting tonight from 6:30 to 8:30 at 112 Pacific Street.

UPDATE 

From a spokesman for City Councilman Steve Levin:

"As demonstrated by numerous court actions against them, SUNY has not acted in good faith to maintain services at Long Island College Hospital. Everyone knows that a hospital can’t function without doctors, nurses and support staff and SUNY has repeatedly moved to reduce staffing levels in an attempt to shut down the hospital. Given SUNY’s track record, these recent actions are not a surprise."