Queens lawmakers introduce conflict of interest bill following proposed cuts to Far Rockaway hospital

Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato speaks at SJEH ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2019. (Photo by Dean Moses)

Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato has introduced legislation that would address conflicts of interest for public employees in response to the proposals that could have drastically cut capacity and services at St. John’s Episcopal Hospital (SJEH).

SJEH, the only full-service hospital in Far Rockaway, was presented with three cost-cutting proposals by the state that would have fundamentally changed the hospital’s existing services and resulted in hundreds of jobs lost, including one option to transform it into a “micro hospital.”

The New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) hired the consulting firm ToneyKorf Partners, LLC, in 2019 to analyze the hospital’s operations and come up with the proposals — which were condemned by community leaders and local elected officials. The plans have since been put on hold by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

However, elected officials are concerned about the consulting firm’s influence over SJEH’s review on the state level, due to Cuomo’s appointment of ToneyKorf’s Senior Managing Director Richard Becker as deputy secretary for Health and Human Services at NYSDOH last year.

Pheffer Amato’s newly introduced bill would prohibit any public employee from overseeing a project that they were previously a consultant on, which the southeast Queens lawmaker said was what happened at SJEH.

“This consultant should never have been in the position of being able to make decisions that would drastically change how St. John’s functions,” Pheffer Amato said. “With his intimate knowledge of St. John’s inner workings, this consultant created proposals that would fundamentally change how the hospital works. Consultants can play an important role in assisting agencies in New York state, but a distinction must be made when a state contracted consultant transitions to government. This bill will ensure that a conflict of interest of this magnitude will never happen again.”

State Senator James Sanders Jr., who represents parts of the Rockaways, will be introducing the Senate version of this bill.

“This legislation will increase the standards of integrity for New York state employees and the policy process,” Sanders said. “Taxpayers rely on state employees to give objective advice on behalf of the public interest to promote sound policy decisions. This bill will remove conflicts of interest in the decision-making process.”

SJEH is a safety net hospital that serves more than 100,000 residents in the Rockaways, particularly residents in underserved communities. It’s where the first case of COVID-19 in Queens was identified. It’s also a significant source of jobs in the community, employing about 1,000 union workers.