Harlem Hospital Doctors Strike Averted, Union Says

By Jeff Mays on December 16, 2010 10:41am | Updated on December 17, 2010 5:02am

By Jeff Mays

DNAInfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM — Harlem Hospital doctors will not go on strike, said the president of the doctors' union.

The doctors had threatened to walk off the job because a new contract would raise pension costs and eliminate free tuition for their kids at Columbia University.

"We know HHC is hemorrhaging money," Dr. Barry Liebowitz, president of the Doctors Council of the Service Employees International Union, said of the Health and Hospitals Corporation while outside of Harlem Hospital. "The doctors decided to sacrifice for the community."

The contract has been ratified in principle. Liebowitz said the union will review the written language over the next few days. If it is satisfactory, the contract will come up for a full vote on Wednesday.

The decision came after doctors met for an hour to vote on whether to strike.

Liebowitz said the tuition benefits will be phased out over four years while the pension changes the doctors agreed to will help some doctors and hurt others.

"We appreciate that the union and its membership have recognized the economic realities that challenge HHC and the city and have accepted a fair and comparable package that includes a modest salary increase that will be funded by a somewhat diminished pension contribution," said a statement issued by Harlem Hospital.

In an effort to close a $1.3 billion budget gap, HHC announced a massive restructuring in May. The changes included layoffs in addition to combining services, and a restructuring of the affiliations of the 11 hospitals that HHC oversees. Columbia University will end its financial affiliation with Harlem Hospital, as a result.

As a part of the cuts, 13 doctors were going to be laid off. That number has been reduced to six in the pending contract. In addition, the neurosurgery department, which was going to be transferred to Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, and the rehabilitation division, which was going to be transferred to Metropolitan, will remain at Harlem Hospital.

Harlem Hospital Executive Director John Palmer said earlier today he was surprised a strike was in the works.

"Right now, a strike is not representative of the progress we made," Palmer said before the vote.

Among other changes in the contract, doctors will no longer be allowed to work beyond 24 continuous hours and no doctor will be laid off or have their hours reduced during the term of the contract.

Liebowitz said the sudden change in benefits is the reason the doctors voted to authorize a strike.

"For 40 years we've been getting these benefits from Columbia University and suddenly they have a new employer and there is nothing but a void," he said.

Outside Harlem Hospital, patients and their loved ones said they were glad a strike had been averted.

"That would've hurt," said Charisse Whitfield, 52, a homemaker whose husband is being treated for prostate cancer at the hospital. "They are closing all of the hospitals. Why mess with this one?"

Joyce M. Karamoko, 66 and  Shirley Hayman, 65, both patients of Dr. Matthew Hurley, vice president of Doctors Council SEIU, said they had already been affected by the threat of a strike. Clinics at the hospital recently stopped taking appointments for next year.

"I am so happy they did not strike because I come here for everything." said Karamoko. "There's too many times Harlem Hospital gets a bad rap. I've had to tell too many people off for talking about this place."

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