PITTSFIELD, Mass. – The nearly 800 registered nurses of Berkshire Medical Center, who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, delivered a 10-day notice to hospital management on Friday notifying them of their intent to hold a one-day unfair labor practice strike beginning at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 3 and running until 7 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 4.
BMC nurses have been bargaining in good faith for a year, seeking to ensure that their patients are able to receive the safest and most effective nursing care possible. The hospital has refused to negotiate over concrete improvements to patient care and RN staffing. BMC management has also refused to provide information necessary for nurses to negotiate quality, affordable health insurance.
A community event on Tuesday in Pittsfield brought together BMC nurses and community members to discuss patient care at BMC and how the hospital is failing to address nurses’ concerns. BMC administration was invited by the event’s sponsors, but did not participate, mirroring their refusal to engage in good faith bargaining about RN staffing and concrete improvements to patient care at the negotiating table. After hearing directly from nurses, many residents stood and voiced their support for nurses and their fight for safe patient care.
“With the community behind us, we are prepared to strike on October 3 for patient safety and a fair contract,” said Alex Neary, RN and Co-Chair of the MNA BMC Bargaining Committee. “All other efforts to persuade management to make concrete patient safety improvements and reach a fair agreement have been unsuccessful. It is up to BMC to negotiate in good faith and avoid a strike.”
BMC Nurses Fighting for Safe Patient Care
BMC nurses being assigned too many patients to care for at one time, or not having enough support staff, has been jeopardizing safe patient care at the hospital for years. Nurses with unsafe patient assignments may not notice minute-to-minute changes in their patients’ conditions, recognize the signs of an impending crisis, or have time to educate patients about how to take their medications at home.
BMC nurses and other staff have brought their patient care concerns forward to BMC management in various ways over the last several years, including directly to supervisors, at labor-management meetings and during ongoing negotiations.
BMC RNs have also been documenting this problem using unsafe staffing forms. Between October 1, 2015 and August 21, 2017, nurses completed 437 unsafe staffing reports. The forms are a tool used by the nurses to document to management any time they are confronted with care conditions that in their professional judgment places their patients’ safety in jeopardy.
“For years, we have been raising concerns and attempting to convince management to address what is a clear pattern of unsafe patient care incidents,” said Gerri Jakacky, Co-Chair of the MNA BMC Bargaining Committee. “Rather than address our concerns, management pretends they do not exist or makes excuses to the public. Our community deserves better from its hospital leaders.”
Quality, Affordable Health Insurance
BMC nurses have repeatedly requested data from BMC that the MNA needs to analyze the hospital’s self-insurance rates as part of a proposal to create an additional “employee +” or “employee plus children” health insurance option. Citing management’s months long refusal to provide the information, RNs filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board against BMC in August. Health insurance is a mandatory subject of bargaining under federal labor law.
BMC has proposed doubling the price nurses pay each month for individual health premiums. Nurses in BMC’s family health insurance plans already pay 40 to 70 percent more than managers. BMC has also refused to consider any plan design, cost sharing, rates or co-payments other than what management first demanded at the beginning of negotiations nearly a year ago.
“We are simply looking to negotiate affordable, quality health insurance to keep ourselves and our families healthy,” said Amber VanBramer, RN on the MNA BMC Bargaining Committee. “It is particularly frustrating as a single parent that BMC has refused to negotiate over this key issue. The hospital already charges nurses like myself in family plans a lot more than managers. Nurses are at high risk for injuries and assault. We are working while exhausted, pushed by management beyond our ability to provide safe patient care.”
Berkshire Health Finances
BMC is highly profitable and its parent company Berkshire Health Systems is the dominant health care provider in Berkshire County. More than 130,000 county residents’ only option for inpatient (and a great deal of outpatient) care is BHS. Berkshire Medical Center also typically secures some of the highest reimbursement rates from commercial health insurers.
Over the last five years, BMC has made a profit of more than $207 million, according to the Center for Health Information and Analysis. In 2016 alone, BMC posted a profit of $47.2 million. That is a margin of 9.7% – more than three times the state and regional averages of 3%, making it a real outlier among profitable hospitals. Read the CHIA BMC data here.
Despite this, Berkshire Health executives have repeatedly told nurses that BMC does not have the resources to make significant improvements to patient care. Yet they have managed to find extra revenue to fund large executive salaries. In 2015, CEO David Phelps’ compensation was $863,000 and the top ten executives took home more than $5 million in salary and other benefits.
Background on Bargaining
Negotiations began in September 2016 and include a federal mediator. More than 25 bargaining sessions have been held. On May 31, nurses rejected the hospital’s “best and final” contract offer by 82 percent. In July, nurses voted 83 percent to authorize a potential one-day strike. The 16-member RN Bargaining Committee has the authority to call for a one-day strike and issue the 10-day strike notice required under federal law.
BMC nurses have also filed three unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board against Berkshire Health, including for threatening to retaliate against nurses if they engage in protected activity and refusing to provide health insurance data necessary for bargaining.
The next negotiation date has been scheduled for September 27.
Founded in 1903, the Massachusetts Nurses Association is the largest union of registered nurses in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Its 23,000 members advance the nursing profession by fostering high standards of nursing practice, promoting the economic and general welfare of nurses in the workplace, projecting a positive and realistic view of nursing, and by lobbying the Legislature and regulatory agencies on health care issues affecting nurses and the public.