NORTH PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Just three months after the owner of two Rhode Island-based hospitals that serve some of the state’s most underrepresented populations threatened to close the facilities because of a dispute with state regulators, employees are demanding a fair contract.
United Nurses & Allied Professionals Local 5110, which represents nurses and health care professionals at Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence, held a picket Thursday for several hours after they claimed management has refused to negotiate a contract with “sufficient protections for hospital patients and the front-line nurses and health professionals who care for them.”
The union and the hospital’s operator, for-profit Prospect ChaterCARE, have been negotiating a new contract since early April 2021. Union members told the Globe that management, which is overseen by Los Angeles-based Prospect Medical Holdings, is allegedly “refusing” to guarantee a fair, safe staffing grid that provides safe nurse-to-patient ratios and protects Fatima’s employees.
The union also claimed that Prospect “refused” to agree to cost-saving changes to the health insurance plans, which they say continues to “price gouge nurses with unreasonable increases in health care costs.”
Laura McQuesten, president of Local 5110, said Prospect executives have recently pocketed “hundreds of millions of dollars in dividend payments” and that Fatima received millions in federal dollars in CARES Act money; but claims Prospect refused to treat patients, nurses and frontline health care workers with “the respect and dignity we deserve.”
“The nurses and health care professionals we represent have worked tirelessly and selflessly through the COVID pandemic, sacrificing our mental and physical well-being to ensure quality care for patients,” said McQuesten. “All we ask in return is for a fair contract that includes safe working conditions and measures to ensure our safety and patient safety.”
Prospect CharterCARE took over operations at Fatima Hospital in 2014. And ever since, McQuesten said they’ve “consistently put greed and profits ahead of patient care.”
McQuesten said the union has presented “many proposals” for safe staffing levels to Prospect CharterCARE, but they allegedly responded that it would cost an “exorbitant fee” and take them “about eight months” to come up with a plan. She said that’s an excessive amount of time, alleging that some nurses are caring for seven to 11 patients each at a time, and particularly in the psychology ward.
“They are just saying, ‘this is the way it is.’ We say that’s unacceptable,” McQuesten told the Globe during the picket. “We care more about our patients. That’s why we are out here. They deserve the best care, and we don’t feel like we can give it with these numbers.”
She added, “If Prospect CharterCare wants to play a positive role in our community and our state – like they say in their ads – they need to start walking the walk. Health care should be centered around quality patient care – not making massive profits for shareholders.”
Otis Brown, a spokesman for the two Prospect hospitals, said the union’s informational picketing “would not interfere with open access to our facility or to any aspect of hospital operations.”
“While we respect the union and its representation of our employees, picketing is not an effective means of resolving the current bargaining process,” said Brown in an emailed statement to the Globe. “We do however, categorically deny that we are refusing to provide sufficient COVID protections to any member of our professional staff.”
More than 130 members of the union planned on participating in the picket outside the North Providence hospital.
McQuesten said many employees got sick from COVID-19 over the last year, and when they were quarantined, others had to fill the gaps. She said many people retired early. Others, such as the younger, newly hired nurses, told her, “I didn’t sign up for this,” she said.
And retaining people isn’t the only issue, said McQuesten. She said the hospital is constantly short on supplies as well.
“There’s been many times where we’ve had to delay a surgery because we didn’t have what we needed. Sometimes, I have to reach into the supply closet and put aside what I’ll need for the next day, or else there won’t be anything left when I return to work for my next shift,” she said.
Fatima, and CharterCARE’s other hospital, Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence, have been in hot water before.
Earlier this year, Leonard Green & Partners, a private equity firm which controls Prospect Medical Holdings, sought state approval to sell its ownership of Prospect. In order to approve the deal, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha required that Prospect put $120 million to $150 million in escrow, to ensure that the two hospitals could continue to operate. Prospect Medical Holdings, he said, was in an uncertain financial condition.
According to a report prepared by Pershing Yoakley & Associates PC, an independent consultant, the two Rhode Island hospitals had accumulated net operating losses of $88.1 million from Fiscal Year 2015 to Fiscal Year 2020. The report also said that health company’s liabilities exceeded its assets by more than $1 billion as of September 2020.
In June, Neronha eventually approved the deal under a new set of conditions. Prospect agreed to the attorney general’s terms.
On Thursday, union members were outside Fatima Hospital throughout the afternoon. A local Teamster’s truck circled around numerous times, beeping in support of the union members.
“We remain committed to negotiating in good faith to reach an agreement that is fair to union members as well as our hospitals,” said Brown in a statement. “We look forward to getting back to the bargaining table.”