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Patriot Ledger: Mass. nurses union members walk out of hearing on Quincy Medical Center sale

Mass. nurses union members walk out of hearing on Quincy Medical Center sale

By Jack Encarnacao

The Patriot Ledger

Posted Aug 10, 2011 @ 06:07 AM


A public hearing on the proposed sale of Quincy Medical Center became a battleground in a labor fight between the prospective owner and nurses from other hospitals it has bought.

Dozens of members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association walked out of Tuesday night’s hearing at Quincy High School as a lawyer for Steward Health Care accused the union of distorting facts about the dispute over a pension plan.

“They are willing to let these important community hospitals potentially close, taking with them thousands of jobs and creating economic chaos, all because they want more than ever and don’t care who is hurt in the process,” Joseph Maher, Steward’s general counsel, said of the union.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association asked the state attorney general to delay approvals of Steward’s purchase of Quincy Medical Center and Morton Hospital in Taunton until the issue is resolved. The nurses submitted signed petitions Tuesday to Steward CEO Ralph de la Torre calling for a resolution to the dispute.

Both sides are scheduled to go before an arbitrator next month.

Several nurses and union officials testified at the hearing that Steward went back on terms of the pension plan it negotiated with nurses who work in the Caritas Christi hospital system that Steward purchased last year.

“It has not been smooth sailing,” said Linda Barton, a nurse at Steward-owned Norwood Hospital.

Paula Ryan, who heads the nurses union local at Quincy Medical Center, said Maher’s statements were “very disturbing to us.”

“It’s very upsetting that their lawyer would stand up and say that we distorted the truth,” she said.

Steward has not yet signed legal documents needed to initiate the defined benefit pension plan.

Both sides reached a five-year agreement last August as Steward completed the Caritas purchase. About two weeks ago, it presented a pension plan document to the union.

The union says the documents changed the formula that determines how much benefits a pensioner receives, reduced employer contributions to the pension plan and made other changes that differed from the understanding reached at the bargaining table.

“They reneged, simple as that,” said David Schildmeier, a spokesman for the nurses association.

Steward says their proposal meets all the requirements of the agreement, which granted nurses in three hospitals 2 percent raises each year for the next three years.

Maher said the nurses are asking the hospital to guarantee the pension generates at least a 7.5 percent return, regardless of how the plan’s investments fare in the stock market. Maher called the percentage “absurd.”

Steward spokesman Chris Murphy said the sides aren’t impossibly far apart, but that tensions rose after the union asked Attorney General Martha Coakley to delay her decisions on pending Steward purchases.

Murphy said delays could jeopardize the deals, particularly the Quincy Medical Center one, which requires a timely reorganization of the hospital’s debt in Bankruptcy Court.

While some speakers at Tuesday’s hearing expressed concern about the labor dispute, all stated support for Steward’s $34 million purchase of the financially ailing Quincy Medical Center.

“Quincy needs a hospital,” said state Rep. Ronald Mariano of Quincy. “I’m more concerned about what happens if we don’t make this deal.”

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Jack Encarnacao is at