BY TRONE DOWD
Last Friday, elected officials and residents of Southeast Queens stood in unison to protest against the closing of the Emblemhealth Community Health Center in Cambria Heights.
The community center has been a hub for both young people and the elderly. Since opening more than four years ago, the center has been home to local artists as well as a place where numerous classes healing therapies, nutritional advice and exercise programming have been held completely free of charge. Dozens rallied outside the EmblemHealth Neighborhood Care facility in opposition to the plans to shut down the facility by the end of 2016.
Comrie told the Press of Southeast Queens that he first received word of the plan to shutter the Health Center just a month ago from community activists Michael and Joan Gore.
“We reached out to EmblemHealth to see if it was true,” Comrie said. “They got back to us and they informed us that it was indeed their plan to close all of the community health centers that they’ve opened across the city.”
As news of the closure spread throughout the community, the Gores started a petition to keep the center open.
As the couple worked on collecting signatures, Comrie said he reached out to his colleagues in the Assembly and City Council to get some traction behind the fight to keep the center, setting up Friday’s protest. The state senator also said that he wanted to get the community rallied behind the closure of the center because of the significant positive impact it has had on the health of neighborhood’s elderly.
“This is a resource that was developed for the community,” he said. “Our once Assembly Member Barbara Clark helped them fight for this facility.”
EmblemHealth operates several health centers throughout the five boroughs, though the Cambria Heights location is the only one in Queens. Many of the wellness programs that are run out of the location are organized by local residents.
“The health issues in this community are serious and unfortunately continue to spike,” Comrie said. “We need to do everything we can to give them opportunities. All of us have been doing this individually, but this is a collective place to get this done. We are more than willing to work with [EmblemHealth] to make sure it stays open.”
Both Councilmembers I. Daneek Miller and Ruben Wills and Assembly Members Alicia Hyndman and the newly elected Clyde Vanel said that they plan to stand firmly behind the community.
“Now more than ever, there is a greater need for community health care centers,” said Council Member Ruben Wills (D-South Jamaica). “In the last 18 years, several borough hospitals have closed, and there are approximately 3,700 uninsured residents with fairly high rates of obesity living in the very Cambria Heights section where EmblemHealth has proposed to shutter the doors of its only Queens facility. These types of facilities are designed to provide healthcare access to individuals and families that cannot necessarily afford primary physical care through a private insurer.”
“While I am encouraged by the ongoing dialogue, it is imperative that we continue to fight together to keep the doors of the EmblemHealth Neighborhood Care facility open for the thousands of local residents that use it every year,” said Assemblywoman Alicia Hyndman (D-Springfield Gardens). “This facility has served as a resource center for patients and has become a major component in increasing the quality of life for the neighborhood. In addition, the loss of the community space is a serious concern. I look forward to the continued discussion with EmblemHealth to address the ongoing health needs of our community.”
Those talks have already begun. According to Comrie, when his office reached out to the healthcare provider, they responded immediately almost immediately in a letter, agreeing to work alongside electeds to keep the facility open.
We look forward to working with your office on developing a plan to identify and accommodate the key community group’s use of the facility,” Lorraine Cortés Vazquez, senior vice president of EmblemHealth said.
“We are also looking forward to working collaboratively on making ACPNY the community health care center in the area. […] We will follow up with your office to work on the plan. Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions.”
“They’ve been responsive,” Comrie said confidently. “We’ll see how deep that cooperation stays.”
For the Gores, the very health of the Southeast Queens community hangs in the balance. “I’ve been part of the classes,” Michael Gore said. “I’ve seen success stories. People who have their meds reduced, amputees who have come by and their A1C’s have dropped. This is a life and death situation. This is a quality of life for us as a people to keep us away from dialysis centers. We are pleading with them to help us live and better our quality of life.”
Reach Trone Dowd at (718) 357-7400 x123 firstname.lastname@example.org or @theloniusly