Hospital Hurting?

St. Louise

The new owners of St. Louise Regional Hospital gave staff a three percent raise when they took over in December, but workers and their union are unhappy with the pace of promised improvements and afraid of painful layoffs.

“We have been notified of Verity’s intentions to cut positions at St. Louise Regional Hospital and other facilities and we are very disappointed,” said Sean Wherley, media relations representative for the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West.

“We intend to hold them accountable to our contract language that says they must make every effort to avoid layoffs, and follow the conditions laid out by the attorney general requiring that they maintain services,” Wherley wrote in an April 5 email.

Verity Health Systems was formed to run St. Louise and five other health facilities when Attorney General Kamala Harris last December approved the takeover of the financially strapped Daughters of Charity Health System by BlueMountain Capital Management.

The SEIU-UHW represents 1,900 non-nursing employees in the Verity system.

On Tuesday, a St. Louise employee said staffing levels at South County’s only hospital are so depleted that employees cannot take vacations, that broken equipment as basic as elevators and doors go unfixed and that even operating room supplies are not reliable.

“We were going downhill with Daughters. Verity said they would put money in the system and we looked to them as our saviors and they have done absolutely nothing,” said the employee, who asked not to be named.

She acknowledged that it might all be due to how long it takes to effect improvements in a hospital system that had been going downhill for years before the takeover.

But even that does not change the fact that Robert Minkin, the hospital’s new interim chief executive officer, told the staff at a forum that 27 layoffs could be expected, she said.

“It greatly affects patient care; without the staff to give them the care that they need they are not going to get the great experience they should be getting, they are not going to get spot-on care.”

In a statement released Tuesday, Minkin acknowledged the layoff process had begun. “While we continue to employ substantially all of our employees . . . we are implementing a reduction-in-force across the System to reduce labor costs immediately. Notices began last month, and implementation will likely occur over a period of weeks or months, depending on the collective bargaining process.

“At Saint Louise negotiations with SEIU regarding the planned reduction in force have been very productive even though the topic is difficult. The relationship between management and union representatives is growing closer through the process as we work together to minimize the impact on employees.”

A source close to Verity management who asked not to be named said that fewer than 27 St. Louise employees will be laid off.

In a just-published report about its first 100 days as the hospital group’s operational management, Verity chief executive officer Mitchell R. Creem warned that change will not come quickly, but said it is happening.

“Since Verity Health System came into being just three months ago, we have begun a process of transformational change—change that is needed to ensure the Verity Health System hospitals and physicians are able to treat patients for generations to come with high quality, compassionate care,” he wrote.

In addition to St. Louise in Gilroy, which includes De Paul Medical Center in Morgan Hill, the five other DCHS facilities now under the Verity banner are St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles, O’Connor Hospital in San Jose, Seton Medical Center in Daly City and Seton Coastside in Moss Beach.

Creem’s comments continued: “The task of turning around our hospitals to a state of sustainable financial success is going to take time and hard work. We aren’t there yet, but we are on our way.”

The report cites achievements so far, including:

  • A three percent pay raise for staff, the first in several years.

  • Forums to introduce staff and physicians to leadership and invite feedback.

  • A three-year contract for all SEIU employees, including a three percent per year wage increase, maintained defined contribution plan for retirement, job security protections and a groundbreaking guarantee of full-time work for most employees.

  • Negotiating a new contract with the California Nurses Association.  

For St. Louise, the report also states the Emergency Department is fully staffed, plans for upgrades to it will be finished by the fall with funding from the St. Louise Regional Hospital Foundation, and that the facility’s Medicare purchasing score improved from eight percent to 61 percent.

The report notes that under the agreement approved by the attorney general, more than $250 million will be invested in the six California hospitals and the medical foundation, “thus assuring the communities served by the hospitals an opportunity to continue to pursue their missions.”