The Crisis of Public Health Disinvestment
The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the stark consequences of decades of austerity cuts. New York was the epicenter of the first wave of the pandemic in the US, and public hospitals quickly became overwhelmed with patients. Reports emerged that patients were lying in hallways due to bed shortages, and staffing shortages led to mandatory overtime for thousands of nurses who struggled to manage the steady flow of patients entering with acute symptoms. Pandemics are, by definition, catastrophes, but we were outraged by our federal representatives’ slow response and the knowledge that for years prior to this public health emergency, our public hospitals already suffered from a critical staffing shortage and lack of supplies. SUNY Downstate’s University Hospital (UH), a safety-net hospital that was nearly closed by austerity budgets in 2013, became a COVID-only hospital during the pandemic. UH nurses and healthcare workers cared for thousands of critical patients on a shoestring staff with insufficient PPE, at great risk to their health and the health of their loved ones. Patients suffer worst outcomes and higher mortality rates when hospitals are understaffed. Nurses at public hospitals across the state have filed hundreds of reports to protest the hazardous conditions that arise when there are not enough staff to care for patients. These reports detail the impact of inadequate staffing on patients: missed medications or meals, delays in treatment and routine care. We must fight to ensure all New Yorkers receive quality, timely care. Our public hospitals must be staffed to ensure quality care for each patient.
The Crisis of Disinvestment in Public Safety
We have witnessed the devastating effects of what can happen when our criminal justice system is limited by funding, by priorities, or by our imagination. When we respond the same way to every emergency, we miss the opportunity to reimagine a new approach to public safety. Not every public disturbance requires a police response, but if we want alternative approaches to public safety, we need to invest in building those systems. New Yorkers should have the option to call for emergency social workers or other non-police interventions in the event of an emergency. Too many New Yorkers in need of mental healthcare are languishing in prisons right now when they should be in hospitals instead. Many other New Yorkers are incarcerated for petty non-violent crimes due to lack of adequate resources. A safer New York means investing in state mental healthcare facilities rather than for-profit detention centers. State facilities have been underfunded for decades, leading to poor conditions for incarcerated individuals and unsafe worksites for corrections staff. Massive outbreaks of COVID-19 in prisons highlighted the need to improve these facilities and limit the number of incarcerated individuals. When we don’t invest smartly in public safety, all New Yorkers are at risk. We must take a holistic approach to community safety. We need to invest in public services that ensure educational, vocational, counseling, social work, psychological, and other clinical services are available for people experiencing mental illness, the developmentally disabled, the incarcerated, parolees and others. These services are key to making sure all New Yorkers can thrive.
The Crisis of Privatization
We have a right to know where our money is going. We empower our representatives to direct the money we pay in taxes to build the society we want, so we have the right to make sure our money serves our interests. When legislators make deals with private partners on public projects, we must ensure that our investment is being guarded by public inspectors. Fund Our Future demands a public voice in all publicly funded projects, from the creation of social programs to the building of our physical infrastructure. We must have publicly accountable investigators to ensure all tax-funded projects benefit the community that paid for it and rely on it. We have seen what happens when public-private partnerships lack adequate public oversight; the incentive for private partners to maximize their returns on investment often leads to cutting corners, like using low-paid staff or cheaper building materials. Recently, concerns over the structural integrity of the Mario Cuomo Bridge came to light when a whistle- blower alerted authorities to defective bolts used by the private contractors hired to build the bridge. Nearly 10% of New York’s bridges are rated as structurally deficient, and much of the state’s infrastructure is nearing obsolescence. Although an investigation into the sudden, tragic collapse of a condominium building in Surfside, Florida, earlier this year is ongoing, reports have emerged that structural damages were known by the board for years prior to the building’s collapse. Victims’ families, survivors, and structural engineers are demanding that our government take a more active role in protecting us as private consumers. None of those victims deserved to lose their lives due to negligence, and if private interests will not voluntarily maintain the structures we rely on to keep us safe, then we must compel our government to represent our interests by introducing publicly-funded regulators to ensure that all of our infrastructure – public and private – is up to code.
The Crisis of Cuts to Services for the Most Vulnerable
New York families suffer when we don’t adequately fund mental health care facilities. One mother we spoke with told us that the wait list was three years long for her son to enter a long-term facility that would provide a proper level of care for his needs. Patients with the most severe needs often have the fewest residential treatment options available. Private facilities are not compelled to accept any patient, and many New Yorkers fall through the gap every year to devastating effect. Recent attacks on the New York City Subway system demonstrate the dangers of a society that leaves severely mentally ill people without the care they need. Incarceration is not the answer: New York City’s jails have more patients with a mental health disorder than all the city’s hospitals. We must create a new way forward for mental health care. We must create public community facilities, where all New Yorkers can receive the specialized care they need. Steady budget cuts have led the NYS Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) to lose more than 3,100 community-based group home beds, with more closing at an alarming rate. Additionally, OPWDD closed more than 1,300 in-patient beds since 2013, which served those with the most complex needs. This leaves only 150 beds in two facilities across New York State for patients with the most severe needs, who may pose a risk to their families or themselves without proper around-the-clock care. Families caring for their sick relatives who can’t get them into nursing homes or residential facilities are left to cobble together their own treatment plans – leading them to rely on 911 in times of crisis or quitting their jobs to provide full-time care. Families who fall through the safety net are exhausted, overwhelmed, and broke when they’re left to figure it out on their own. We cannot afford to let the burden of care fall solely on our neighbors’ shoulders. These are members of our community and we must provide community-funded and operated full-time facilities for all New Yorkers with unmet needs.
The Crisis of a Poorly Funded Government
Every single public employee we spoke with – in dozens of different agencies – described the same experience: they were burnt out, overworked, and desperate for more staff. Unemployment skyrocketed during the pandemic, and Department of Labor employees worked mandatory 12+ hour days every day with no days off for seven consecutive months to process the volume of claims they received. New Yorkers who suddenly found themselves without jobs during the lockdown couldn’t afford to wait – our bills don’t stop just because our employment status does. Newly unemployed New Yorkers likely didn’t know that DOL staff in the state had lost over 21% of their staff in the decade preceding the pandemic. When our system is stretched to the breaking point, any new pressure could lead to systemic failure, and we deserve better than that. We must build our civil service system to serve the people, and the state’s current budget priorities don’t let us do that. New Yorkers don’t get the services they need and deserve when our public agencies are underfunded. Every time a New Yorker has difficulty getting their basic needs met, it drains their focus and energy from being able to contribute what New Yorkers are world-renown for: our creativity, our innovation, our bravery, our pride, and our compassion. Imagine what New York could look like if every single one of us had full security in our knowledge that when we need our community’s help, our community has our back.