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.
The 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
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.”