2009 News

MNA executes powerful campaign to save public health in Worcester

06.15.2009

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
June 2009 Edition

 
  Public health workers in Worcester held a rally downtown at City Hall to protest the city’s shortsighted decision to lay off half of the public health nurses.

In late April—just a matter of hours before the swine flu outbreak made global headlines—Worcester’s City Manager Michael V. O’Brien, Mayor Konstantina Lukes and the City Council made a shocking announcement: they would be implementing budget cuts and staff nurse layoffs that would ultimately eliminate virtually all services provided by the city’s public health department.

Because of budget constraints facing the city, O’Brien’s $491 million budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts July 1 has virtually dismantled the Public Health Division, with its overall staffing being reduced from 20 to five. Among those laid off were five public health nurses, leaving only two to cover the city—the second largest in Massachusetts. 

Immediately, and without question or hesitation, the MNA joined forces with some of the state’s most influential advocates to implement a campaign to save public health services in Worcester.
As the city officials’ plans went into effect, three out of the six nurses working in the city’s public health department (the MNA bargaining unit known as Massachusetts Public Health Association in Worcester) were laid off. As a result, numerous public health services were slated for elimination, including: surveillance control and infectious diseases prevention; immunization clinics to protect vulnerable children and adults; health services and screening for the elderly living at city housing authority sites; and emergency preparedness and response to natural disasters and potential terrorist attacks.

“These programs and services have been critical to the physical and economic health of the city of Worcester,” said Dr. Stephanie Chalupka, public health researcher, registered nurse, and member of the Massachusetts Public Health Association in Worcester. “As a result, we knew we needed to do everything within our power to restore staffing and programming to the city’s public health department.”

These efforts included:

  • Forming a coalition made up of the Massachusetts Public Health Association and a number of other civic, community, labor and health care organizations
  • Launching a broad, grassroots public awareness campaign
  • Conducting a letter-writing campaign
  • Holding a press conference that detailed the potential outcomes of the proposed cuts and layoffs
  • Participating in a public awareness rally that included presentations by a number of health care experts, supporters, advocates and nurses
  • Taking their case to the airwaves during live interviews with radio stations WTAG and WCRN.
  • Attending and participating in a hearing held by the City Council Health and Human Services Committee regarding the public health cuts (14 people testified, with almost all expressing dismay over the public health budget cuts)

More bad calls yield activism, successes

As the MNA and its fellow coalition members took on the enormous responsibility of working to educate—and thereby correct—the city manager about the disastrous consequences of his poor decision making, the unthinkable happened: Management announced that the city was partnering with UMass Memorial Health Care and the University of Massachusetts Medical School to redefine its public health mission. Part of this process would include having UMass oversee and direct the task force dedicated to “redefining this public health mission.".

Ann Cappabianca, one of the two remaining public health nurses, addressed city management at a public hearing on the issue. “Just as we don’t want to privatize police and fire, we also can’t privatize the services my colleagues and I provide,” Cappabianca said. “The reason is simple; our goal is to be accountable to you, the City Council, and through you to the people of Worcester.”

Cappabianca also added that there was a conflict in having UMass direct the task force because that institution could end up taking over many of the city’s public health functions. “Am I the only one in this room that doesn’t see what a clear conflict of interest this presents?” Cappabianca asked. “This task force needs to be independent, with no connection to UMass or any other private entity.”

The fight continues

While the June edition of the Massachusetts Nurse was going to press, the “Coalition to Save Public Health Services in Worcester” continued its grassroots organizing efforts and was successful in restoring three public health positions and guaranteeing the MPHA involvement in the task force being formed to examined the future of public health in Worcester.

The fight to fully restore all positions and programs continues. 

FPO