Legislative Leaders Put Heat on For-Profit Hospitals

Andrew Kitchenman | May 8, 2013 | Health Care
Sweeney attacks Salem hospital for stonewalling union, Weinberg demands financial transparency

Stephen M. Sweeney, president of the New Jersey Senate
As more hospitals switch to for-profit status, state lawmakers are demanding more financial openness and more open-mindedness in dealing with labor unions.

Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem) joined nurses’ union leaders in Salem yesterday in calling on the for-profit owner of Memorial Hospital of Salem County to negotiate with the union.

“A big concern about what is going on in this state and this nation right now is the for-profit hospitals,” Sweeney said. “No one’s against for-profit (status), people making money and things working. We are against sacrificing healthcare and that care is being driven by the bottom line, rather than what’s best for the patient.”

Sweeney noted that he supported the hospital’s conversion to for-profit status in 2002, when it became the first for-profit hospital in the state.

Like officials in other communities since then, he had expressed concern that the local hospital could close. However, he said Tennessee-based hospital owner Community Health Systems hasn’t lived up to its commitments since 2002.

“I was here when they made the promises and they tried to get out of nearly every single promise they made,” said Sweeney, citing a proposal by CHS to close the Salem hospital’s maternity ward. “All they care about is taking money out of this state, and not really about the people who live here.”

Sweeney said the company’s refusal to negotiate with the Health Professionals and Allied Employees is “disgraceful,” adding, “Even with some of the worst employers, you can make some headway.” He also said that CHS “is the worst of the worst, and it’s a disgraceful example of what’s wrong in this country today.”

The hospital has been challenging a September 2010 vote by the nurses to form a union. The appeal is on hold due to a legal dispute over National Labor Relations Board members.

Sweeney and HPAE officials alleged that nurses feel they can’t advocate for patient safety because they fear losing their jobs. Hospital officials denied the allegation. Hospital spokesman George Gennaoui said in a statement that the hospital is committed to “quality, safe care for our patients,” appreciates its employees and empowers them to “speak about any issues of concern.”
In recent years, the number of proposed for-profit conversions has increased in New Jersey, including the recent Prime Healthcare Services of California announcement that it buying the three-hospital St. Clare’s Health System.

The HPAE has challenged Prime’s purchase of St. Mary’s Hospital in Passaic and Saint Michael’s Medical Center in Newark, but a separate union, JNESO, has been negotiating contracts with the company and has criticized the HPAE for interfering with the deals.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) introduced a bill on April 29 that would require for-profits to disclose several pieces of financial information.

Weinberg said she decided to introduce the measure after Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed a bill that would have required for-profits to disclose the same information as nonprofits.

While Weinberg said she wouldn’t predict whether Christie would be more welcoming of the new bill, she added: “I’m hopeful that he will live up to what he claims about himself, that everything that he’s involved in is transparent and open.”

This bill would not require for-profits to disclose all of the information that nonprofits must disclose, but would require that hospitals put three years of audited financial statements on their websites.

She added that the state’s growing popularity among for-profit hospital companies might not reflect a long-term commitment to the facilities.

“We’ve become a mecca for that and we really need to require them to meet minimum standards of transparency so that we know that these for-profit companies want to be in the healthcare field not the real-estate field.”

Sweeney supports the bill. “If you’re going to be taking state dollars, then you should open your books, just like everyone else does,” he said.

HPAE President Ann Twomey said the union isn’t opposed to all for-profits, but believe they should be held to the same financial standards as nonprofits and make the same commitment to benefiting their communities. She said CHS hasn’t been doing that.

“They should do the right thing, sit down, recognize the results of the election which was won fair and square by secret ballot,” Twomey said.