NEW YORK — The state’s largest health care workers union has joined the ranks of virtually everyone else in New York calling for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ouster, shifting the focus to the state’s powerful hospital industry — among Cuomo’s most prominent and loyal allies.
1199SEIU President George Gresham issued a statement Thursday afternoon calling for Cuomo’s resignation following “substantiated claims of sexual harassment.”
“Labor unions are responsible for fighting for safer working conditions and rights for workers, and this includes the right to be free from harassment,” Gresham said in a statement. “No one can be exempt, and no one is above the law.”
1199’s statement, which followed calls from health care unions NYSNA, DC37 and 32BJ, now makes the silence of top hospital executives, who have long benefited from an alliance with the governor, all the more conspicuous.
The Greater New York Hospital Association and hospital leaders — notably Northwell Health’s President and CEO Michael Dowling — are now among an increasingly small group of Albany power brokers to stay quiet as calls grow for Cuomo’s resignation and prospects of an impeachment gain steam in the wake of credible allegations of sexual harassment facing Cuomo and the subsequent collapse of his political support.
New York’s private hospitals — which Cuomo has favored during his three terms with state funding, cushy consulting work and outsize influence in shaping state policies — stand to face a seismic hit to their bottom lines if a less friendly governor takes over, according to nearly two dozen interviews with health care officials and advocates who spoke with POLITICO about what Cuomo’s potential impeachment might mean for their industry.
Most asked for anonymity to speak freely, saying they have bills on the governor’s desk and didn’t want to further aggravate him at the expense of their issues.
One individual, who attended Cuomo’s latest fundraiser filled with union and health care leaders, said the governor’s long-standing relationships with people like Gresham, GNYHA President Ken Raske and Dowling has made clear winners and losers among the health care industry should Cuomo leave office.
“For years Cuomo has helped perpetuate a system and exacerbate a system that has an inequitable distribution of resources in New York,” the person said. “[The private hospitals and 1199] have to be very nervous because this alliance they’ve made, it’s predicated on having the executive to perpetuate the systems that they have. If he leaves, he’s their champion, and it opens up for more transparency.”
Health advocates and government watchdogs have long condemned the state’s distribution of funds to wealthy hospitals at the expense of systems that predominantly treat low-income people and the uninsured — a funding model that will likely be threatened with Cuomo’s exit.
The Greater New York Hospital Association spent $3 million lobbying state and local governments in New York in 2020 — the top spender, according to numbers released by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics last month. 1199SEIU, meanwhile, spent $2.54 million. That’s on top of millions the hospitals donated to Cuomo and the state Democratic party over the years.
Raske has cultivated a decadeslong relationship with Cuomo, resulting in reports of preferential treatment for his trade group, including allegations that the administration’s 2019 approval of a Medicaid reimbursement rate increase was tied to campaign donations from the Greater New York Hospital Association.
Dowling, once an adviser to Mario Cuomo, and Raske took on a major role during the state’s pandemic response. Northwell Health was among the first hospitals to receive Covid-19 vaccines and other resources. Even before the pandemic touched down in New York, Cuomo tapped Dowling to co-chair his Medicaid Redesign Team II effort.
Northwell was also appointed by Cuomo to a consulting role overseeing One Brooklyn Health, a consortium of GNYHA-membered safety-net hospitals that consist of Brookdale, Interfaith and Kingsbrook.
Representatives for Raske and Dowling did not return requests for comment.
Dennis Whalen, Northwell’s vice president of state government affairs who assisted in the Cuomo administration’s vaccine rollout efforts at the end of 2020, declined to comment directly on the allegations facing the governor.
“We’re continuing to focus on just doing our job in health care,” he said, adding that Northwell’s focus “has been what it’s what it’s always been: the delivery of health care and trying to attack the various aspects of the pandemic.”
Asked a similar question, Michael Pauley — a spokesperson for the Healthcare Association of New York State, which represents hospitals and health systems — said “while there is uncertainty, we’re still working closely with state agencies and the Legislature on key health policy issues, advocating for our member hospitals, health systems and continuing care providers on a daily basis.”
HANYS too has longstanding ties to Cuomo. Jim Clancy, senior vice president for state policy, and Courtney Burke, the association’s chief operating and innovation officer, are both former state Department of Health officials. HANYS General Counsel Sandi Toll, previously served as first assistant counsel to Cuomo.
Northwell’s Whalen, meanwhile, served as HANYS executive vice president and then president and CEO from 2009 to 2016.
The impending power shift if Cuomo leaves office could create a “major food fight in the Legislature” for health care interest groups seeking influence on State Street, predicted one Albany observer.
“The budget process will be a mess,” they said.
Bill Hammond, senior fellow for health policy at the conservative think tank, The Empire Center for Public Policy, said the hospitals’ alliance with the governor was largely based on their bottom line.
“Their interests span decades, not just the term of the current governor, and they’re smart about it. Their interest is in being allied with the people in power, regardless of party, so long as those people in power are willing to reciprocate,” he said. “I think the biggest exception was [former Gov. Eliot] Spitzer, who went to war with them.”
But the hospitals’ silence on Cuomo could soon present internal problems for the tacit message it sends to their staffs.
“Sexual harassment, a toxic workplace, a hostile work environment … that is not just siloed to this specific office that we’re talking about right now,” said Erica Vladimer, cofounder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group. “This is not just a moment for public officials to step up and put the protection of their workers front and center. It is a moment for CEOs of hospitals to do the same thing. They are sending a very clear message to their employees: that employee protections take a backseat to politics.”
Organizations farther removed from the governor’s inner circle are taking advantage of Cuomo’s weakened position.
Housing Works CEO Charles King, who has sparred with the governor over a variety of health care initiatives aimed at helping those struggling with homelessness and substance use, said he is “happy to take advantage of the situation to advance other things.”
King said he reached out to the executive chamber to push for Cuomo to fund supervised injection sites, a long-awaited health initiative that advocates say has become more important as drug-related overdoses increase during the pandemic.
“I expect we’ll see a flurry of activity from the governor,” he said. “Frankly, if we could get movement on overdose prevention centers, I would be happy to stand with the governor.”
And even if Cuomo ekes out time, King said he doubts the governor can secure a fourth term — an inevitability that will hit some health care leaders hard.
“They literally have gotten away with murder,” said the person who attended the fundraiser.