Hospital workers, activists call for better health care practices

Researcher: St. Joseph hospital profits in line with large corporations, not other California hospitals

Sonya Rifkin, a researcher with the National Union of Healthcare Workers, speaks to the audience at Monday evening’s health care town hall. The event was sponsored by the union and aimed to shed light on local health care issues. (Jose Quezada — For the Times-Standard)
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Advocates sounded the alarm again Monday over what they call a “health care crisis” in Humboldt County, sharing their experiences with St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka and presenting statistics that indicate high profit margins for the hospitals’ executives amid a series of layoffs.

In the past year, St. Joseph has seen a number of controversies, including multiple rounds of layoffs that many blame in part on the hospital’s 2016 merger with Providence Health and Services. Less talked about at the forum was Mad River Hospital’s layoffs earlier this month, but the general theme among the speakers Monday was local health care is in dire shape.

Sonya Rifkin, a researcher with the National Union of Healthcare Workers, shared a number of statistics about St. Joseph and Redwood Memorial hospitals, pointing to their profit margins in the past year, which her data indicated were around 15 and 17 percent, respectively. She said the numbers were in the “Pepsi and Coca-Cola” range.

“I don’t say that facetiously,” she added, noting that large corporations often yield profits in that ballpark while hospitals around California post profits closer to 2 percent. Mad River Hospital, her data showed, had profits last year of around 0.7 percent.

Renee Saucedo goes over some of the themes discussed by speakers who presented their perspectives on health care in Humboldt County. (Jose Quezada — For the Times-Standard)

No individuals from any of Humboldt County’s hospitals participated in the town hall. Roberta Luskin-Hawk, the chief executive of St. Joseph, issued a statement to the Times-Standard saying the meeting was conceived “by and for” the NUHW and the California Nurses Association. None of the county’s hospitals were contacted, she said, to “collaboratively and in good faith develop meaningful content or structure.”

“Based on the meeting agenda and proposed questions published by the NUHW and CNA, it is clear the intent of the meeting is to advance an agenda unrelated to healthcare in our community,” Hawk said in the statement. “Consistent with the National Labor Relations Act, we believe the most appropriate forum for discussions with labor unions representing our caregivers is the bargaining table.”

At Monday’s town hall, nurses dismissed the notion that public events were being done to gain the upper hand in wage negotiations. James Ladika, a registered nurse at St. Joseph, said what the nurses want is “respect.”

“We have been told by administration that our voices don’t matter,” Ladika said. Last March, he said, St. Joseph caregivers submitted a petition to management citing concerns over patient safety.

“There has only been further reduction in staff since that time,” he said.

More than on raising wages, the town hall’s focus centered on a need for better staffing. Many who spoke pointed to reduced ratios of nurses to patients — with fewer having to care for more, speakers said, patients fall through the cracks and their safety is compromised.

During the town hall, union organizer Renee Saucedo recorded themes and solutions that arose onto posters taped to the wall. Town hall moderator Steve Madrone emphasized ground rules of focusing on issues, establishing common ground and not pointing fingers.

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone emceed the health care town hall meeting, indicating what he hoped would be the first of a “series of health care forums” to be held in the future. (Jose Quezada — For the Times-Standard)

More than once, however, the discussion turned to angst against St. Joseph and Redwood Memorial’s corporate tie-ins. One speaker pointed to a state attorney general determination last July that neither hospital had met its charity obligations for the previous year.

Another speaker, Sylvia DeRooy, shared her account of a disastrous stay at the hospital, in which she said she could not bathe. Her bedsheets, she said, were not fully cleaned of her vomit from hospital-prescribed opioid medications.

St. Joseph’s round of layoffs in October included cuts to the hospital’s constant care attendants, or sitters, who care for patients at their bedsides.

“We had a staff meeting (after the layoffs) and our managers wanted to discuss that we’d had a sudden increase in (patient) falls on the floor, and ‘How can we work to stop this?’” said Sallie McComas, a hospital staffer. “Our sitters prevent falls.”

Also discussed was a need for better retention of doctors. Humboldt County’s distance from the next major area has proven to be a challenge in keeping medical professionals local. Activist Elizabeth Phillips, speaking at the town hall, said finding diverse doctors who look like the people they care for is a way for patients and doctors to connect.

“We heard people come up here and say that we’re losing our advocates, the ones who are being laid off,” Phillips said. “They’re the ones who provide voices for people. How, if you cannot vocalize what’s inside your DNA, can you tell health care providers what you need?”

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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