By the Bedside, At the Bargaining Table, and in Trenton

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By the Bedside, At the Bargaining Table and in Trenton: 

Fighting for Patient Safety and Community Access to Care

This is not an easy time to be a healthcare professional in New Jersey.  Hospitals are in a merger and consolidation frenzy, and powerful, wealthy for-profit hospitals are attempting to dictate public health policy.

We know that in a confusing and changing healthcare environment,  patients trust and rely on their bedside nurse and caregiver.  But nurses and health professionals are often put in the middle of debates between a hospital closing and a buyer with a troubling track record, or  between hospital and insurance companies, or between our livelihoods and our obligation to speak up as witnesses to short-cuts in care.

That’s why our union rights are so important – they enable us to speak up, whether in the halls of Trenton, by our patient’s bedside, or in contract negotiations, when patient care is compromised, when workers are subject to unsafe conditions, or when access to safe, effective and affordable patient care is in jeopardy.  Silence is not an option for healthcare professionals when patients are put at risk.

Even when they might be threatened with the loss of their job, with lawsuits or other retaliation, as sometimes happens, healthcare professionals know that speaking out for our patients, our communities, and our professions is both our right and our responsibility.

In Trenton, HPAE nurses and healthcare workers have built nursing coalitions to fight for a safe nurse staffing law (S1183/A647); joined consumer groups in fighting for transparency and consumer protections from surprise medical bills due to out-of-network charges; and worked with First Responders to win new protections for workers’ compensation coverage for nurses, firefighters, and police when injured or ill due to toxic exposures on the job.    We’ve challenged hospital consolidations and take-overs if they threatened our communities’ access to services, and worked to tighten the oversight and regulation of consolidations and acquisitions.   We fought to preserve University Hospital as a public safety net hospital when UMDNJ and Rutgers merged, protecting jobs and the community’s health. We spoke up and criticized the NJ Department of Health for failure to enforce laws to reduce violence in the workplace, and continue to press for compliance by NJ hospitals.

But we don’t just advocate for safeguards and protections in Trenton.  We believe our contract negotiations are also the proper place to discuss and negotiate not only for fair wages, but for safe staffing, for safe working conditions, and for protecting access to care for our communities.   As one nurse said to me “joining a union was the best way for me to advance and protect my profession.” I agree. When we are bargaining for fair contracts, we are fighting for patients and communities, as well as for our professional standards.

Throughout New Jersey, HPAE nurses and healthcare workers have been in contract negotiations with hospitals this spring, and pending consolidations and for-profit business models have been a factor in some of these negotiations.  Safe staffing and protections for workers and community are front and center in each of our negotiations.

At Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, which has just signed an affiliation agreement with Hackensack University Hospital, nurses gained improvements in staffing and continuing education programs in a 3-year contract that held onto language protecting our contract in the event of an eventual merger.  At Inspira Medical Center Woodbury, formerly Underwood Hospital, our newest members are still at the bargaining table, working hard to win safe staffing, and to improve patient care standards, working conditions, and wages.   As newly consolidated into the Inspira Health system, nurses want a voice at the table in patient care decisions, and parity with the nurses at the rest of the Inspira system.

Nurses and healthcare workers in Hudson County are also in contract negotiations with CarePoint Health, the for-profit owners of both Christ Hospital in Jersey City and Bayonne Medical Center.  HPAE members worked hard to save these two hospitals after they fell into bankruptcy, due largely to mismanagement.  HPAE leaders built community coalitions in Bayonne and Jersey City, lobbied elected officials, and sacrificed millions in wages and benefits to keep our hospital doors open, to protect workplace rights for all employees, and to maintain vital services.  In their contract negotiations this year, they are continuing that fight, acting as the voice for the community to improve staffing standards and patient safety.

In negotiations with HPAE at Bayonne Medical Center and Christ Hospital, the for-profit owners of CarePoint Health have threatened the closure of both hospitals over legislation in Trenton (S20/A4444) that would rein in excessive out-of-network patient charges through transparency and consumer protections.

For the third year in a row, Medicare data released last week exposed the out-of-network charges of hospitals throughout the country, including CarePoint Health, owners of BMC and Christ Hospitals.  49 of the 50 highest charges were from for-profit hospitals, and CarePoint was among the top three highest chargers for 15 of the 20 most common diagnoses.

One day of CarePoint’s 2013 profit is 53 percent higher than the average annual income in Jersey City and Bayonne.   CarePoint’s business model rewards investors at the expense of employees and  communities who depend greatly on these hospitals for healthcare services.   CarePoint Health can afford safe staffing.

Senator Vitale, sponsor of the legislation protecting consumers from out-of-network charges, said the opposition’s testimony was, “motivated by ‘personal and corporate’ greed while consumers were left out of the equation…. Health consumers are getting gouged and ripped off at every turn.  Who speaks for them?  I thought it was the Legislature.”

As health care policy debates become dominated by large hospital systems and insurance companies, there is a voice from the bedside, also speaking for patients and against putting profits before patient safety.  It’s the voice of nurses and caregivers.  Often, employers attempt to intimidate healthcare workers into silence.  But being a nurse or healthcare professional carries with it a professional obligation, to speak out on behalf of our patients, at the bedside, at the bargaining table, and in the halls of Trenton.

By the Bedside, At the Bargaining Table, and in Trenton