For more than a week, dozens of health care workers at Brookdale Hospital have been lining the corridor just inside the hospital’s main entrance, professionally dressed and ready to work. The hospital’s health care workers, including dietary, housekeeping, clerical workers, radiology and other medical technicians, pharmacists, some midwives, some physician assistants and every category of registered nurses, found themselves with no health care on May 20, 2011. In response to a series of actions taken by the hospital management, Brookdale’s health care workers staged a job action.
“I am a registered nurse, and I don’t have health coverage,” said one worker who wished to remain anonymous. “That is the insult.” It is also dangerous. Another nurse who works in the infectious disease dept. stated she is fearful of being exposed to an infection. “I have no health care,” she said.
How did this situation come about? According to a statement from 1199 SEIU, as of Thursday, May 19, all 3,400 health care workers at Brookdale Hospital lost their health care. Why? “Brookdale Hospital has failed to make payments to the workers’ health benefit fund and currently owes $23.4 million in arrears. In order to restore benefits at least until June 30th, Brookdale must make a payment of $6.1 million.” Members gathered in the lobby of the hospital in large numbers to protest Brookdale management’s refusal to take corrective action despite their obligation to make payments for health benefits as set forth in the collective bargaining agreement.
A letter with the subject line “Update on 1199 Benefits Coverage” dated May 24 on Brookdale Hospital stationery from VP of Human Resources Max Sclair stated, “Payments to the Child Care Fund, Training Fund, Job Security Fund and Pension Fund are current and benefits from those funds are in effect.” Regarding workers health care benefits, the letter stated, “We are still waiting for a computer generated download from the benefit fund with the names of all
employees and their dependents who are currently covered under the 1199 Benefit Plan. As soon as we receive that information, it will be transposed to the temporary coverage that you will be receiving through Blue Cross/Blue Shield.
As soon as the information is downloaded, within 10 days you will receive a Blue Cross/Blue Shield card which will provide coverage for both you and your dependents. Blue Cross/Blue Shield has been retained as a third party administrator to pay claims.”
Brookdale’s unilateral decision to cut off workers’ health care and replace it with Blue Cross/Blue Shield is unacceptable to the union members. Another registered nurse described the situation. “We have a contract in effect until 2015,” she said. “Over the years, we have always negotiated our benefits as part of our salary. The benefits entail pension, child care, health care (which is a major one), education and other stuff.” According to this nurse, Brookdale repeatedly defaulted on their contribution over a long period of time. “We have gotten countless letters from the trustees of the 1199 benefit fund indicating at such and such a date we will be cut off. They always made the payment at the infinitesimal minute so that it never cut off. This has been going on for more than two years. This time, they didn’t make any payment,” the nurse said. “Because of the continuous repetition of not meeting deadlines, the trustees of the fund cut of Brookdale employees’ health care.”
There are health care workers who believe disrupting health coverage was management’s goal all along. “What management did was come up with some kind of Blue Shield, Blue Cross Medisys —which does not exist — that would cover us,” said a nurse. Management notified the membership if they or any of their family members needed any kind of medical care they should use the emergency room of any Medisys hospital and their pharmacy.
According to a worker, “It has not worked out. Countless members have gone for their medication; they have not been able to get it from the pharmacy because they may not carry it. Since Sunday, May 22, they (the pharmacists) have been questioning why the member may need the medication. We had two cases like that.”
Brookdale’s health care workers are demanding that administration pay the Benefit Fund and re instate workers as agreed upon in the collective bargaining agreement. “They cannot unilaterally decide they are going to cut off health care workers’ health care,” another worker said.
In light of what it calls “the hospital’s record of ineffective management,” 1199 SEIU is calling for the CEO and Board of Brookdale Hospital to resign. The union is requesting that the state Department of Health appoint a temporary receiver to put the hospital’s finances in order.
Under pressure, the administration of Brookdale Hospital agreed to re-instate the 1199 Benefit Fund via incremental payments. During the interim, Brookdale healthcare workers will be covered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield.
Management signed a written agreement which stipulates no worker will be fired or otherwise retaliated against for participation in the job action.