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Doctors Call Cancellation of Kings County Hospital Gynecological Cancer Care an Emergency

Brooklyn city-run medical center pledged to continue providing chemo and radiology as protest loomed — but patients must travel to Manhattan for surgeries.

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Kings County Hospital staff protested proposed cuts to gynecologic oncology services, June 29, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Medical residents at the city-run Kings County Hospital are urging elected officials to stop what they say will be the termination, starting Wednesday, of women’s reproductive cancer surgical treatment at the central Brooklyn medical complex.

“By removing their services you’re essentially killing them,” Dr. Opokua Amoabeng, a resident in the obstetrics and gynecology department at the hospital, told THE CITY following a Monday rally doctors held at the hospital. 

Kings County patients seeking surgery at the gynecological oncology unit are being asked to continue their care at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, a complicated commute away for many — even more so during the pandemic.

Almost all — 85% — of those seeking care for cancers of the reproductive organs at Kings County are Black, the doctors added, with many already facing the worst health disparities in the city. The push by Kings County doctors comes as Health + Hospitals, which operates public hospitals in the city, faces budget woes amid the financial fallout from the coronavirus crisis. 

Resident physician Dr. Opokua Amoabeng spoke at a rally about saving gynecologic oncology services at Kings County Hospital Center, June 29, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg

“This change is completely inappropriate for the women of Brooklyn,” obstetrics and gynecology residents at the hospital said in a letter to the City Council, which has drawn over 1,200 signatories. “As a safety net hospital, Kings County Hospital is one of the only public hospitals treating women without insurance or who are undocumented in Brooklyn.”

H + H officials met with concerned hospital staffers this weekend, the group said at Monday’s rally, and assured them care there would not be completely eliminated. Kings County Hospital will continue to perform chemotherapy, radiotherapy and diagnostic appointments, according to H + H.

Seeking Surgeons

Public hospital patients who need complex gynecologic cancer surgeries have always been referred to Bellevue, a spokesperson at H + H said. 

“We remain committed to all of our patients in Central Brooklyn and look forward to building an even more robust gynecology oncology practice,” H + H spokesperson Stephanie Guzmán said in a statement.

The agency attributed the halt in Kings County reproductive surgeries to a staffing shortage. The Chief Gynecology Oncologist position is vacant as of last Friday. H + H is seeking to hire two gynecology oncology surgeons to lead the practice, according to the agency.

Kings County Hospital staff are optimistic about a reversal, but requested clarity on how long surgical patients will be referred to Bellevue. 

They’re also concerned about how their patients — most of whom are low-income Black and immigrant women from the Brooklyn neighborhoods most affected by COVID-19 — will get to and from Manhattan for their surgeries in the middle of the pandemic, according to a staff member who requested anonymity.

Staff at Kings County Hospital Center watched a protest over proposed cuts to gynecologic oncology services, June 29, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“Kings County is a place that produces amazing services for the community,” said one resident who attended the Monday event. “We want to see that grow and expand and support our patients better.”

But “the harder that is, the more our patients are going to struggle” to make it to follow-up appointments and seek treatment during a confusing and scary time, he added.

And by saying “take two buses and a train and get to Manhattan to get your care,” Amoabeng said, officials are essentially saying, “That’s okay, she can go ahead and die of her disease.”

“It’s very unrealistic,” she added. 

H + H told THE CITY that the agency is planning to provide transportation for the unit’s surgical patients and implement a referral system to help avoid lapses in care. 

Four patients have been transferred to Bellevue so far, according to Amoabeng, out of 30 currently undergoing chemotherapy in the unit at Kings County. 

The referral period is expected to take a couple of months, until the new leadership steps in, said the H + H spokesperson.

Link to NYPD-Defund Cause

Doctors pushing to keep gynecological cancer care operations at Kings County fully funded and staffed have linked the effort to a broader call for cities to defund police departments and invest resources into social and health services.

Some attendees at the Monday event, held outside the hospital, held signs saying “Defund NYPD, Fund HHC,” an acronym for the Health + Hospitals Corporation.

“Taking that money from an institution that is killing us and putting it into a place that’s serving us is important,” said speaker Sabina Dorzile, an organizer at Life of Hope Center in Brooklyn, which works with immigrants.

At a board meeting last Thursday, Health + Hospitals President and CEO Mitch Katz acknowledged that the 11-hospital network is experiencing budget strains.

“There’s no way we’re going to shrink Health and Hospitals,” he said, noting the system’s front-line role in treating and testing patients for the coronavirus. “I’m not letting go of doctors and nurses.” 

Still, he added, H + H will embark on a new cost-savings plan, and he stressed his no-layoffs pledge was in effect “in the short term.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday that he would cut the NYPD’s operating budget by $1 billion.

De Blasio and the Council reached a budget deal earlier on Tuesday, the final day of the city fiscal year. The new budget, strained by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, reduces police department overtime pay and cancels an upcoming class of police recruits. 

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