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Taunton’s Morton Hospital nurses to protest Steward Health Care in New York

Taunton’s Morton Hospital nurses to protest Steward Health Care in New York

In an attempt to cut costs, Morton Hospital officials announced this week that they will scrap the pension plan for non-union employees.

By Marc Larocque Staff Writer

Posted Dec 19, 2011 @ 11:29 PM Last update Dec 20, 2011 @ 12:42 AM

Taunton — Nurses from throughout Massachusetts, including nurses from Taunton’s Morton Hospital, will be in New York today to protest Steward Health Care and its owner Cerberus, one of the largest private equity investment firms in the country, according to the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

“The reason that we are demonstrating there is that Steward would have you believe they are just this local company whose only interest is hospitals and communities of the hospitals which they own and operate,” said David Schildmeier, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA). “But they are an arm of a mega Wall Street equity firm that is entering the health care market. We are pointing a finger (that) when huge Wall Street firms gets involved in health care, you have to be concerned about it.”

The protest is scheduled to take place near the Cerberus corporate office at 12:30 p.m.

The MNA claims that Steward is slashing hospital budgets, lowering staffing levels by laying off nurses and not replacing retired workers, and treating patients “like products on an assembly line.” Schildmeier said none of this has taken place at Morton Hospital, but he said nurses there fear that similar tactics can be used in Taunton.

Steward’s response

Steward Health Care is firing back, claiming that the MNA is misleading the public as they pursue “a militant national agenda at the expense of patients and the community.”

Chris Murphy, a spokesman for Steward, said, “They will stop at nothing to advance their national agenda even if it means denigrating the hospitals where they have spent their careers,” adding that, “This is about creating conflict, period.”

While Schildmeier acknowledges that Steward “saved” facilities like Morton Hospital by buying the financially troubled institutions and investing money in infrastructure, he said “as soon as the ink is dry they are going and making all these cuts” and have become harsh employers, as far as how they treat their nurses.

Morton was bought by Steward after Attorney General Martha Coakley approved the acquisition in September — through a deal that requires Steward to retain workers and invest $25 million in capital, and prevents the group from transferring ownership for five years. Now, Steward has a total of 10 hospitals in the state.

Reasons for protest

Schildmeier said cuts that Steward has made at other hospitals include the firing of 13 nurses in a psychiatric care unit at Carney Hospital after a non-nursing employee assaulted a patient; and the firing of a nurse who was an active union organizer at Holy Family Hospital Methuen for a minor medical error (when she should have received a warning, Schildmeier said). Schildmeier said that at Carney Hospital the intensive care unit was slashed in half from 14 to six beds with 10 nursing layoffs since Steward took over.

In addition to that, Schildmeier said, the company is not providing foods like crackers, bread and cranberry juice to help stabilize patients at Good Samaritan Hospital in Brockton and Norwood Hospital. Schildmeier said that is unacceptable for Cerberus, which bought Chrysler in 2007 before selling it last year, to skimp out on its nurses and patients.

“When the owner of Chrysler can’t provide a loaf of bread to patients, that symbolizes something being very wrong,” Schildmeier said.

Another specific issue, Schildmeier said, is that Steward has “renegged” on an agreement to maintain the pension plans for nurses at its former Caritas hospital facilities. The issue is now in arbitration.

“They are saying if they give the nurses their pension they’ll have to close the hospital,” Schildmeier said. “They say if we keep on demanding the pension we promise you we can’t afford that and have to close services and entire hospitals. This from the company that owned Chrysler. It’s important for people to know who they are dealing with. We want these hospitals to succeed. We want Steward to succeed. They are investing a lot of money into the bricks and mortar to keep hospitals afloat. But we shouldn’t attack people who deliver that care. We can have good care, good treatment of employees and have a very successful profitable hospital.”

Schildmeier also said that the MNA would be supported by the Occupy Wall Street movement during today’s protest.

Aiming for negotiation

Murphy, of Steward, said that the MNA protest is a negotiating tactic that is all about the pension plans and denied the various claims made by the MNA. Murphy said that the MNA called them on Monday and said they would cancel the protest if the arbitration “gives them the pension they want,” but Murphy added that “the hospitals don’t have the money” for the pension benefits requested by the nurses.

Murphy said Steward has submitted a defined benefit pension plan that matches mutually agreed upon terms with the MNA, but that the nursing association has refused to sign. Murphy said the MNA’s claims that the terms of the defined benefit plan submitted by Steward do not meet the negotiated terms is directly refuted by the MNA Executive Director Julie Pinkham who testified under oath at a recent arbitration hearing that the items in the limited master agreement between MNA and Steward were included in the plan submitted by Steward. Murphy added that a proposed plan submitted by the MNA to Steward does not contain the mutually agreed upon terms outlined in the limited master agreement.

“The request for a richer than agreed upon plan is the sole true agenda item,” Murphy said. “The only way to enrich MNA labor contracts would be by forcing rate increases and premium increases on a community that cannot afford it.”

Defending against accusations

Murphy said Steward nurses are actually in the top five percent for national nurse compensation; the median annual compensation for their nurses is $152,000 a year.

Murphy denied the accusation that Steward is sacrificing patient quality and denying basic patient supplies, and said that if there wasn’t food on a floor at a hospital, it should be reported and then it would be fixed.

Murphy said that quality at Steward hospitals has improved since it took over, with a 19.2 percent reduction in mortality and 80 percent reduction in drug-resistant infections.

Murphy said no nurses that have spoken out against Steward have been fired.

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