Cure for corporate medicine: A doctors’ union contract

Doctors at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart hospital in Springfield, Oregon, thought they’d be carrying picket signs June 23. Instead, that day they wrapped up a unanimous vote to approve their first-ever union contract.

Fist And CaduceusThe agreement preserves benefits, raises pay 4 percent, and sets performance bonuses for things like avoiding patient readmission. But the union effort was never about the money, says Sacred Heart doctor David Schwartz, president of the Pacific Northwest Hospital Medicine Association. PNWHMA — also known as American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 6552 — was formed to fight outsourcing and give hospital doctors greater say over the quality of care. In early 2014, PeaceHealth Sacred Heart administrators announced plans to outsource the hospital’s 36 doctors to a management company that would become their employer. About a third of them quit. The rest joined a union.

“We didn’t want to end up working for one of these management companies that was only interested in squeezing out a profit,” Schwartz said. “We wanted to have a say in how medicine is practiced.”

The new union contract bars the hospital from outsourcing their jobs. And it sets up a committee of three doctors and three administrators which will meet regularly to discuss patient loads and staffing levels. Any significant changes to work load or working conditions will have to be approved by a majority of the committee.

Anyone who works in health care is fed up with how corporate it has become.” — Sacred Heart hospitalist David Schwartz

Schwarz says it took solidarity — and the threat of a picketline — to get agreement. PNWHMA became part of a coalition of Sacred Heart unions —Service Employees Local 49, Operating Engineers Local 701, and Oregon Nurses Association (a fellow AFT affiliate). They attended each each other’s contract bargaining sessions, wore each other’s stickers on days of action, and supported each other in other ways.

By June it became clear PeaceHealth managers were dragging out negotiations with the doctors. Management negotiators were scheduling sessions farther and farther apart, and walked out of a June 7 bargaining session when observers from other unions showed up. The following day, PNWHMA announced that doctors would picket outside the hospital on June 23. Management returned to the bargaining table almost immediately and by June 14, the two sides had a tentative agreement. Now ratified, the contract runs through October 2017.

PNWHMA isn’t the only union representing doctors in the United States, but it may be the only one representing just doctors who are employees of a hospital. It’s unusual enough that their struggle was written about in the New York Times. Schwartz says he’s gotten calls from doctors around the country who are interested in unionizing.

“Anyone who works in health care is fed up with how corporate it has become,” Schwartz said. “Decisions on how hospitals are run are being taken away from physicians, nurses, CNAs, pharmacists, technicians — the ones who actually know how to do the job — and are increasingly in the hands of people who have business degrees, who say you need to maximize profits, minimize expenses. But they’re so far removed from what we actually do that they don’t understand what is good health care.”

1 Comment on Cure for corporate medicine: A doctors’ union contract

  1. I am a former employee at PeaceHealth in Springfield, Oregon and I am so proud of the hospitalists, the nurses and my (former) therapists who have been pushed to the breaking point by managers who know nothing about what quality health care involves, only talking points and the bottom line. Healthcare today is so much more challenging because this pervasive illness lies more in the black and white ledger sheets of the administraters. That’s a sickness that cannot be cured through a pill or an injection. The solution must come from the caregivers and this is a big, 1st step. Your hard work means better care for the vulnerable persons in our country. One question though–when can you come to South Carolina and show them how it’s done? Good Lord, it’s even worse here.

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