1199 fills 17K-seat arena for budget rally in Albany

Health care workers called for higher reimbursement rates and funding for safety net hospitals – while rapping with hip hop legends.

What do rapper Rakim, state AG Letitia James and 17,000 health care workers have in common? They all packed into the MVP Arena in Albany for a rally to fund health services today.

What do rapper Rakim, state AG Letitia James and 17,000 health care workers have in common? They all packed into the MVP Arena in Albany for a rally to fund health services today. Rebecca C. Lewis

Thousands of health care workers descended on Albany on Tuesday to demand more funding in the budget. Joined by lawmakers, state leaders and a couple of hip hop legends, organizers with the politically influential 1199SEIU health care workers union called on Gov. Kathy Hochul to give more money to safety net hospitals, increase Medicaid reimbursement rates and ensure fair wages for home care workers.

Specifically, 1199SEIU is calling for a $2.5 billion investment from the state into health care. That would include increasing the Medicaid reimbursement rate 10% for hospitals and 20% for nursing homes, restoring $700 million in funding for safety net hospitals they say Hochul cut in her proposed budget, increasing that funding by another $600 million, fixing reimbursement rate disparities and continuing investments made in last year’s budget to ensure higher wages for home care workers. “We do not want to be here today,” 1199 President George Gresham said. “We’d rather be doing what we do best, and that is giving good health care. But we are here because we demand the resources to do the right thing.”

In a memorable lobby day, the union enlisted the help of iconic rapper Doug E. Fresh, the inventor of beatboxing, to serve as the emcee for the rally. He spoke about his experience caring for someone with prostate cancer for eight months and how the experience made him respect nurses more than he already did. “Sometimes we don’t really understand how much y’all go through and how much you do,” Fresh said to the attendees, who filled most of the 17,000 seats at Albany’s MVP Arena. “I just want you to know – and I mean this from the heart – I appreciate everyone in here.”

Fresh wasn’t the only hip hop heavy-hitter to make the trip and show their support for health care workers either. Ralliers were treated to a performance from rap legend Rakim. “We not leaving Albany until we get what we want,” he said after performing to enthusiastic applause. 

A series of speakers that included state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and state Attorney General Letitia James laid out what those wants are. James perhaps explained most succinctly: “Money money money money,” she sang to the crowd to the tune of “For the Love of Money” by The O’Jays. The crowd enthusiastically echoed back the fifth “money” from the hook of the song.

According to the union, both chambers in the Legislature included many of their demands in their one-house budget proposals. “We are fighting every day for you because you are fighting for us,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I represent the Senate Democratic majority, we have your back.” Heastie, flanked by over a dozen fellow Assembly members on stage, also pledged to deliver for health care workers in the final spending plan. “We ain’t gonna do a budget unless it shows you the respect that you do,” Heastie said to applause. He left the stage to the Prince song Purple Rain, a nod to both the speaker’s love of the artist and the color of the union that filled the stadium.