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California Nurses Strike Billion-Dollar Felon, HCA

Linda Milazzo: Whatever the outcome of this strike, these nurses are standing up to their felon corporate employer and fighting valiantly for their rights and the rights of their patients. Their strike leaflet reads, "When we fight, we gain respect."
Registered Nurse Estella Chavez

Registered Nurse Estella Chavez (photo by Linda Milazzo)

With support from California Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield and California State Senator Fran Pavley, along with an enthusiastic nod from Governor-elect Jerry Brown and sanctioning from LA Federation of Labor, Central Labor Council of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, registered nurses from Riverside Community Hospital (Riverside) and West Hills Hospital (San Fernando Valley) took to the streets at 5:30 a.m. on December 23rd to begin a five-day permitted strike against the world's largest for-profit hospital chain and billion dollar felon, Hospital Corporation of America (HCA).

Registered Nurse Estella Chavez (photo by Linda Milazzo)

At issue are HCA's abandonment of negotiations with nurses' Union SEIU 121RN and HCA's failure to respond to the matters (listed below) that the Union contends are critical to the needs of nurses and patients:

  • Staffing by Acuity: Our Union is proposing language that addresses issues with the system that reviews a patient's acuity. The sicker our patients, the fewer we should have under one RN's care. This is needed to protect our patients, allow them to heal, get well and go home to their families.
  • Rest and Meals: We want to ensure that rest and meal breaks are guaranteed and enforceable by our contract. RNs work very long hours; if a nurse cannot rest and recharge, patients are at risk.
  • Clinical Ladder: Our Clinical Ladder proposal would encourage RNs to attain additional education and training and receive small, usually temporary pay increases for doing so. Our Clinical Ladder proposal is achievable and is a win for the hospital, patients and RNs.
  • Call-Off: Nurses in some areas of the hospital are reporting significant loss of pay because of call-offs. Our Union is proposing that the hospitals establish a bank of time to compensate nurses for involuntary call-off. RNs need a stable pay check just like everyone else. (Call-off refers to times nurses are sent home from their jobs when patient loads are low).

The strike is scheduled to go from December 23rd through December 27th (no strike on Christmas), beginning each day at 5:30 a.m. at both hospital locations. By sanctioning this strike, LA Federation of Labor and Central Labor Council of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties authorize their affiliate members (delivery drivers, electricians, etc.) not to cross the nurses' picket lines to do hospital business.

State Senator Pavley endorsed the nurses concerns in her letter to Edward Battista, Vice President of Human Resources at West Hills Hospital:

"The nurses who have come into my office have been concerned primarily with improvements to patient care, staffing, and pay and benefits. ... I encourage West Hills Hospital & Medical Center to offer benefits that will recruit and retain the best employees and will ensure that West Hills Medical Center continues to provide quality care to our community."

Assemblyman Blumenfield similarly endorsed the nurses concerns in his letter to Vice President Battista:

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"On behalf of the Registered Nurses and the community of West Hills, I'm asking your hospital to bargain in good faith with SEIU Local 121RN; to make sure that workers are treated fairly and equitably; to insure that changes in staffing or working conditions do not put patients and caregivers at risk; and, finally, to agree on a contract with strong protections for patients and workers."

At the West Hills strike site, two nurses, Estella Chavez who has worked at West Hills Hospital for nearly 20 years, and Elley Langsam who has worked there for 30 years, informed me that patient services, patient products and hospital effectiveness have declined radically since the hospital was purchased ten years earlier by Hospital Corporation of America. Prior to that, West Hills Hospital had been owned and operated by Humana, another for-profit mega corporation that both women praised highly.

Nurses Estella Chavez and Elley Langsam (video by Linda Milazzo)

Although Humana has been the focus of multiple lawsuits and used in Michael Moore's film Sicko to spotlight the downside of managed care, the breadth of Humana's settled and alleged crimes pale in comparison to the proven crimes of HCA, the mega-corporation founded by the family of former Republican Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist. Interesting how several current and former politicians have connections in some way to HCA. Bill Frist through his vast profits from his family's ownership, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney through his former company, Bain Capital, the current owner of HCA, Florida Governor-elect Rick Scott, who was forced to resign his post as HCA'a Chief Executive amid the scandal of the company's Medicare fraud.

HCA ultimately admitted to fourteen felonies and agreed to pay the federal government over 600 million dollars. According to the Department of Justice, "HCA settled the largest health care fraud case in the history of the United States, netting the government a record $1.7 billion in damages." Despite his involvement with HCA, Rick Scott was still elected Governor of Florida in November, 2010.

The nurses striking West Hills Hospital and Riverside Community Hospital this holiday season are defiant in their stance against massively wealthy HCA, which placed private security officers along the perimeter and grounds of West Hills Hospital to respond to the strikers. Nurses Chavez and Langsam shared their bemusement at the stepped up security, explaining how their requests to HCA for adequate hospital and grounds security have long gone unanswered.

I attempted to meet with West Hills Hospital's Chief Executive Officer Beverly Gilmore, but she was unavailable for an interview. I did meet briefly in the hospital lobby with Zachary McVicker, a well dressed young man toying with his iPad, from Mustang Marketing, West Hills Hospital's private public relations firm. McVicker shed little light on the hospital's position on the issues or the strike, except to assure me the hospital had the situation well under control, using nurses who didn't strike along with temporary nurses to cover for the strikers. McVicker did not know how many hospital nurses did not strike, but the striking nurses told me the non-strikers comprised about 20% of the nursing staff.

In lieu of meeting with CEO Gilmore, McVicker provided me the phone number of Dr. Lee Weiss, Medical Director of West Hills Hospital's Emergency Department, whom he said would answer my questions. In my subsequent phone call with Dr. Weiss, the doctor stated categorically that he had nothing to do with the strike and knew absolutely nothing about it. Weiss was amiable in our short talk but wanted no part of the fray. I did observe a few doctors out striking with the nurses and the nurses let me know they had many doctors' support. It appears McVicker placed Dr. Weiss in an uncomfortable position. So much for the contracted PR skills of Mustang Marketing.

Whatever the outcome of this strike, these nurses are standing up to their felon corporate employer and fighting valiantly for their rights and the rights of their patients. Their strike leaflet reads, "When we fight, we gain respect." After listening to their stories and hearing their dedication to their patients and their jobs, they've surely gained my respect. I wish them the best in this endeavor.

Linda Milazzo

Linda Milazzo