News & Events

Judge keeps nurses’ benefits intact

Judge keeps nurses’ benefits intact

Cambridge Health Alliance to appeal

By Robert Weisman

Globe Staff / July 12, 2011

A state Superior Court judge has ruled that the owner of Cambridge Hospital can’t move forward with its plan to cut retiree health benefits for 289 nurses, a decision being hailed as a victory by the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

The ruling, which parent company Cambridge Health Alliance is expected to appeal, could lead to the resumption of stalled contract negotiations between the hospital group and the union. Talks broke down last year over the proposed benefit cuts for retirees. But the court decision also could worsen the financial plight of the hospital group, which lost nearly $7 million last year.

“One of the major benefits here is retiree health, and that’s the reason I’ve stayed at the hospital for 38 years,’’ said Donna Kelly-Williams, a nurse at Cambridge Hospital and president of the nurses association. “This ruling puts me at ease. I’m coming to the end of my career. If the ruling hadn’t gone in our favor, I wouldn’t be able to retire.’’

Doug Bailey, a spokesman for Cambridge Health Alliance, which also operates Somerville Hospital and Whidden Hospital in Everett, said the alliance is evaluating the “disappointing decision’’ issued July 1 by Middlesex Superior Court Justice Herman J. Smith Jr.

The hospital group, which treats a disproportionate share of low-income patients, has suffered a number of financial setbacks in recent years. It is bracing for anticipated further cuts in the state Medicaid program, which insures many of its patients.

“We are considering all our options with legal counsel,’’ Bailey said, “but we expect to appeal the ruling and be given an opportunity to submit evidence that supports our contention that we have the right to control our own finances and affairs in these precarious economic times.’’

In his decision, Smith denied a Cambridge Health Alliance motion to dismiss a nurses association suit that sought to block the hospital group from reducing retiree health benefits for Cambridge Hospital nurses by about 40 percent. The proposed cuts, consistent with those Cambridge Health Alliance negotiated with other unions, would have affected only those veteran nurses still on the city payroll of Cambridge, which partly owns the hospital.

Employees hired since 1996, when Cambridge Health Alliance took over running the hospital, do not work for the city.

Cambridge Health Alliance, which has cut more than 600 jobs over the past three years through layoffs and attrition, now has just under 3,000 employees at its three locations. It is set to disclose today that it will reduce hours for about 18 employees – a cost-cutting measure put in place before the court ruling.

That decision stated that Cambridge Health Alliance must “pay to all retired nurses who are also members of the Cambridge Retirement System the same health insurance contribution rate as the City of Cambridge pays its retired employees.’’

Hospital management had told the nurses union negotiators that they needed to reduce retiree health benefits because of an accounting change that would increase the hospital system’s costs by about $30 million over the next three years. The proposed cut prompted the union to reject a “last and final’’ contract offer last summer.

When the hospital group declared a negotiating impasse and sought to put the contract into effect despite the union’s objection, the union filed an unfair labor practices charge. An investigator for the state Division of Labor Relations then ruled that Cambridge Health Alliance “failed to bargain in good faith’’ with the nurses association.

Association president Kelly-Williams said she hoped this month’s Superior Court decision would bring management back to the bargaining table. Bailey said it was possible contract negotiations could resume while Cambridge Health Alliance appeals the ruling to the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

Robert Weisman can be reached at