Included as a part of this year’s “big ugly” were amendments to controversial bail reform, as well as Medicaid cuts and restructuring that have called into question Governor Andrew Cuomo’s priorities in the midst of a public health crisis that is hitting the Empire State hardest.
“We failed to help New Yorkers in need,” read a statement by State Senator Jessica Ramos, in which she condemns the passage of an “austerity budget filled with regressive legislation that will starve our neighbors and fill our jails.”
Ramos criticized the missed opportunity to implement increased taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers, a move that would earn the state revenue to be used for “endless” remedies, such as funding to hospitals and education, in addition to relief for the state’s unemployed and impacted small businesses.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, the governor was looking at a potential $6 billion budget gap, nearly $4 billion of which experts attributed to Medicaid.
To address these deficits, Cuomo appointed a Medicaid Redesign Team (MRTII) to identify cost-saving measures. Plans backed by the MRTII ultimately included slashing roughly $400 million in Medicaid spending to New YOrk hospitals - $186 million would be taken from the city’s public hospital system NYC Health+Hospitals.
In the end, the final budget reduced payments in the amount proposed by the governor’s MRTII, a step that has been labeled by many as particularly tone deaf given the current health climate.
“Hospitals and their workers are at the front lines, seen in their amazing COVID-19 response,” writes Ramos in response. “We cannot praise hospital staff and also slash the already limited Medicaid that supports their essential work.”
The Queens senator is just one on a long list of elected officials who oppose Medicaid remodeling, including State Senators Julia Salazar, Gustavo Rivera, Zellnor Myrie and Alessandra Biaggi, who all joined Ramos in voting against the budget.
Myrie and six other state legislators representing Brooklyn penned a letter to Cuomo days prior to final budget negotiations, slamming Medicaid cuts that leave central Brooklyn facilities at a loss of $38 million.
“We write to you today with few words and short time: the proposed cuts to our hospitals in Central Brooklyn are cruel, inhumane, and unacceptable,” they wrote.
The lawmakers referenced the already desperate situations being faced by the borough’s medical personnel fighting novel coronavirus.
“Kings County Hospital is already operating at 95 percent capacity and using hand sanitizer to clean and reuse face masks,” the letter reads. “Doctors at SUNY Downstate are being asked to split ventilators between patients, and Brookdale Hospital has frontline staff home sick due to COVID-19 infection.”
The officials cited mixed messaging from the governor, who assured the state would not “put a dollar figure on human life,” while simultaneously pushing for cuts that would devastate hospitals serving majority black and low-income communities.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams has been a strong voice in bringing attention to disproportionate risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to NYC’s communities of color, calling for the release of public data on the outbreak’s racial impacts.
“We have to stop comparing and putting everyone in the same boat” he said at a virtual press conference opposing downsizes to Medicaid funding. “It’s a difference between you not being able to go out as much as you wanted to, or to use your private jet one more time, and completely devastating someone’s life because they don’t have the medical care they need.”
“Those are two different kinds of effects,” Williams continued. “We have one group that is able to go off to the Hamptons. And we have another group that is considered to be essential workers, who are keeping the city going. And those are the folks we fail time and time again.”
Williams says that people of color are overrepresented in occupations that have been deemed essential, and are therefore more likely to be exposed to the virus.
A poignant example of this can be seen within the Queens neighborhoods of Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst, communities currently holding some of the city’s highest concentrations of confirmed cases.
In addition to being largely Hispanic in ethnic makeup, Census data shows those areas are also home to employees of the food service, personal care, construction and janitorial industries, who make up 38 percent of the working population.
As cases in these neighborhoods continue to rise and increasing numbers of critically ill residents seek care, local hospitals are struggling to accommodate the capacity.
The coronavirus pandemic has seemingly exacerbated holes in every aspect of the system, and the budget is no different. Also reflected in the state’s Medicaid revisions are policies that strike at those who are most vulnerable, including tighter eligibility rules for certain long-term care programs that provide crucial assistance to the elderly and disabled.
“There were existing crises before COVID-19 that are now exaggerated,” said Jawanza Williams of Vocal NY, a grassroots organization that advocates for low-income New Yorkers affected by public health crises of all kinds. “We have to think critically about the use of Medicaid in the public health good of the state.”
Major reductions to hospital Medicaid funding will likely be delayed until after the COVID-19 crisis is over, so that New York remains eligible for $6.7 billion in matching funds included in the federal stimulus package.
This year’s budget also allows for quarterly adjustments throughout the year, authorizing Cuomo to withhold certain state aid payments if hits to tax revenue are worse than expected.