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Union calls on state to better fund Upstate and other public teaching hospitals

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The union that represents academic and professional faculty at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse is calling on Gov. Kathy Hochul to invest more funds in SUNY’s teaching hospitals in the next budget.

These hospitals have been at the forefront in the fight against the coronavirus, yet haven’t received the funding from the state that they’ve needed, according to union officials. United University Professions (UUP) President Dr. Fred Kowal said the time to change that is in the upcoming budget process. Kowal is traveling the state trying to bring attention to the issue. And he’s not shy about blaming the virtual elimination of state funding for teaching hospitals on former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“He shirked his responsibility,” Kawal said. “Indeed he abandoned it for his own political purposes and out of a criminal rejection of the role of public teaching hospitals."

Kowal is optimistic that Hochul will reverse a trend of dwindling state subsidies since 2008. But the issue is complicated, and magnifies how it’s harder for public hospitals to make ends meet. For one thing, teaching hospitals have to pay debt service and benefits that are negotiated.

“That’s unique among any state agencies,” said Kowal. “No other agencies have to pay these. And that’s why the hospital got a subsidy, to help pay those, but when that was eliminated, the cost remained."

The impact of that loss of revenue has been especially evident since the start of the pandemic. It’s magnified a health care worker shortage. Upstate has lost 400 nurses in the past year, in part because it can’t compete with private institutions when it comes to pay or benefits. Syracuse-area State Sen. Rachael May calls the whole situation embarrassing. She is not happy that during the pandemic, nurses at Crouse Hospital received hazard pay, while there was nothing like that for Upstate nurses.

“So people were seeing their colleagues right across the street getting recognized for what they had been doing in the pandemic. And the state is saying ‘sorry, we can’t do that for you,’" said May.

It remains to be seen how this plea plays out in the State Legislature. Syracuse-area Assemblyman Al Stirpe thinks the issue will get some traction.

"I think the debt service will get taken care of,” said Stirpe. “How much of the other parts of it will be where the battle is. Hopefully there will be some federal money we’ll be able to utilize."

UUP specifically wants the state to restore $87 million to restore essential mission funding, cover hospital debt service, and fully implement and expand SUNY’s Medical Education Opportunity Program.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.