Nurses Say Private Equity Firm Starving Massachusetts
By Mark Brenner, Mischa Gaus
December 20, 2011
Nurses sang sour carols today to the private equity firm they
say is starving Massachusetts hospitals and pitting workers
against each other.
Massachusetts nurses came to the headquarters of Cerberus
Capital in Manhattan because Cerberus is the money behind
Steward Health Systems, which took over the troubled Catholic
hospital system Caritas last year and now is squeezing
patients and workers for ultra-profits.
Hundreds of fellow members of National Nurses United, the
Massachusetts nurses’ national union, sang and chanted
outside Cerberus this afternoon.
Realizing that private equity firms specialize in stripping
troubled businesses down and flipping them to new owners, the
Massachusetts Nurses Association had insisted during the
takeover on guarantees that practices and specialties could
not be phased out.
Hospital workers did take concessions, but MNA secured a
multi-employer pension plan and set the stage for negotiating
with the chain collectively across four of its hospitals
rather than one by one.
Now Steward is challenging MNA’s pension plan, closing down
units, and threatening to shutter whole hospitals in order to
get nurses to open up their contracts.
"Their whole pitch was to keep the community hospitals
alive," said Linda Tasker, a telemetry nurse at Merrimack
Valley Hospital. "But they’re robbing Peter to pay Paul, and
picking out the hospitals that will make the most money."
Steward is also laying off many staff nurses - especially those
at the top of the seniority list and pay scale.
Victoria Webster and Lynne Blanchard were two of 13 nurses
fired in May at Carney hospital’s psychiatric unit in
Dorchester. They say the firings, which included 19 mental
health counselors, came after they blew the whistle on
patient violence and poor staffing at the facility. Steward
hired a crop of inexperienced new nurses, they say.
Nurses say the search for cost savings is reaching extremes.
When a floor is short-staffed, nurses say, local hospital
administrators can’t hire per-diem contract nurses without
"We can’t even give patients a cup of coffee," said Cheryl
Laorenza, a psychiatric nurse at Holy Family hospital in
Methuen. Nurses at the Norwood hospital campaigned around
Steward’s food cutbacks"they brought loaves of bread to the
floor and tacked a picture on the bulletin board with the
caption 'Got Bread?'"
Jane Emery, a telemetry nurse at Merrimack Valley Hospital,
said administrators are turning the temperature down on the
heating blankets in chemotherapy to save on electricity.
Administrators won’t provide them with enough alarms to warn
when patients are at risk of falling out of bed - but if they
do fall, the nurse gets the blame for not responding fast
enough. "People are so fearful," Emery said.
Patients are signing themselves out of the hospital against
medical advice, she added, because administrators keep them
waiting on stretchers for hours until enough patients
accumulate to open another floor.
SEIU SIDES WITH STEWARD
Steward is breaking its promises, MNA says.
The union says that in the limited master agreement
negotiated during Steward’s acquisition of Caritas, it not
only won the pension plan but also secured guarantees to
maintain services and funding.
But now the union says Steward is slowly turning the spigot
off, closing down a specialized unit at St. Elizabeth’s
Medical Center in Brighton, consolidating lab tech services,
and demanding aggressive concessions from workers.
The Service Employees union, which represents service workers
at the Steward hospitals, signaled its openness to proposed
When MNA would not, SEIU put out worksite flyers repeating
the boss’s accusation that resisting cuts imperils the
hospital chain’s future - which infuriated the nurses.
"It is our understanding," the SEIU leaflet reads, "that the
MNA plan adds costs to the system that the system cannot
afford without further layoffs, program closures and
potentially closure of hospitals."
MNA wants to hold the line. The nurses are looking to repair
staffing levels, protect benefits, and keep the community
hospitals open until Cerberus starts looking for the next big
thing to exploit.
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