August 8, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – August is National Immunization Awareness Month, but the bitter revelation that in a few short weeks the Bloomberg administration intends to shut down two of the city’s three immunization clinics, is enough to make labor leaders, community groups and elected officials sick. (Watch Video)
“Once again, the people who can least afford to are being denied, attacked, and their services are being diminished,” DC 37 Associate Director Oliver Gray told a group of supporters gathered on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday morning. “We really need those centers.”
Last year, according to DC 37, the two walk-in immunization centers slated for closure in the Tremont section of the Bronx and Conona section of Queens, immunized almost 30,000 people – 9,650 of them children. The Ft. Greene immunization clinic in Brooklyn, meanwhile, administered another 27,090 doses to residents – of which 5,599 were children.
News that the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene wants to shut down walk-in immunization clinics in Queens and the Bronx right before the start of the a new school year, comes as a total shock to the elected officials representing those communities.
Councilwoman Maria del Carman Arroyo, who also chairs the City Council’s Committee on Health, says that she only learned about the impending closures after receiving a text from a DC 37 official inviting her to Wednesday morning’s rally.
“The City Council goes through a very extensive process with the administration discussing areas in the budget that need to be modified in order for the budget to be brought to balance,” Councilwoman Arroyo said. “Throughout the months we have discussed the budget for fiscal year 2014, was there ever a conversation about immunization clinics closing? Never. My question is, why not? It’s disgraceful.”
The Health Department did not respond when asked about the “August surprise,” but a spokesperson for the agency argued that the cuts are being made to reduce costs, and that in addition to the Ft. Greene clinic, free and low-cost immunizations remain obtainable through 50 primary providers in the Bronx, as well as 22 others in Queens.
But that explanation does not come close to satisfying the concerns of many.
“New York City is abandoning one of its core functions,” Local 436 President Judith Arroyo said. “One of the functions of the department of health – anywhere in the world – is to identify disease, to map it, to control it, to isolate it, to confine it – and if possible – eradicate it. One of the weapons that they use in doing that core function is immunizations. The whole purpose of National Immunization Awareness Month is to educate the public about how immunizations have been able to decrease deaths throughout the world, and over the years. But this year, the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, has decided that they are not going to celebrate – they’re going to close two clinics.”
Carol Pittman, community representative for the New York State Nurses Association, said that the looming shut down of two of the city’s three walk-in immunization centers represents another attack on people’s ability to get healthcare locally where they live.
“This is about access to healthcare,” Pittman said. “We see that local community-based healthcare is being cut all over the city. It makes staying healthy so much more difficult for residents of New York City. We need more local immunization opportunities and not fewer.”
Stephanie Gendell, associate executive director for policy and government relations with the Citizens’ Committee for Children, was equally incredulous.
“One of the best ways that we can keep our children healthy is to ensure that they’ve had immunizations,” Gendell said. “Instead, we are standing here in the middle of National Immunization Awareness Month urging the administration not to take immunizations away from children. It is August. This is when children get prepared to go back to school. This is when the rush is to get their immunizations, so that they can start on time in September.”
Anthony Feliciano, director for the Commission on the Public's Health System, sees a pattern in the Health Department’s move to close the immunization clinics.
“They have incrementally looked at cutting direct services to get out of their responsibility to provide direct services,” Feliciano said.
According to Councilwoman Arroyo, the savings that the city says it wants to achieve by closing walk-in immunization centers in Queens and the Bronx “doesn’t even register one percentage point in the budget.”
“That’s what makes this all the more confusing and frustrating,” Councilwoman Arroyo told LaborPress. “This kind of funding could be found in our budget in some way without having major impact on direct access to services.”
Local 768 President Fitz Reid slammed the “onslaught of the mayor” as part of a larger agenda to dismantle public services across New York City.
“Right now, the mayor is destroying the ‘public’ in public health,” Reid said. “The mayor is destroying the ‘public’ in public hospitals. The mayor is destroying the ‘public’ in public education. The mayor is destroying the ‘public’ in public housing. We have seen the mayor destroying the young and the old, and we all have to cooperate together to put a stop to it.”
Councilwoman Letitia James – who represents the community in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn where she says lines stretching around the block at the local immunization clinic are commonplace – is promising to hold hearings on the clinic closures.
“This represents a threat to the healthcare of countless numbers of low-income children in the City of New York,” Councilwoman James said. “This is a heartless act. We will hold hearings and hold this administration accountable. It will not stand.”
CWA labor leader Arthur Cheliotes derided the mayor and his apparent callousness towards working-class men and women.
“This administration has allowed for tax cuts to build these stainless steel towers throughout the city,” Cheliotes said. “Those tax cuts mean there isn’t funding for a lot of vital programs that assist the working people of the city. That has been the agenda for the last 12 years. We have had a mayor of Wall Street who’s not concerned about the public good, but concerned about the one-percent. But most of the people in this city are not rich. Most of the people in this city struggle every day to survive. Most of the people in this city have children they want to see succeed, be safe, and be healthy. And those are the public services that public workers deliver.”