PROVIDENCE — Union employees from Lifespan and Care New England voiced their concerns Thursday night about the proposed merger between two of the state’s largest systems.
The state’s first public access meeting about the merger gave health care workers their chance to weigh in on the proposal.
“I’m terrified by the impacts of this merger. We need guarantees [from the systems] that services will not be eliminated,” said Sarah Gello Weinreich, a registered nurse at Butler and Bradley Hospital, owned by Care New England and Lifespan respectively, with her 3-year-old son on her lap over Zoom. “As a mother and a caregiver, I’m here to make sure that we do better by our children. We need more capacity, more resilience, and [to] expand access. Not less.”
Gello Weinreich said she’s seen the CNE detract 40 beds from the pediatric psychiatry floor to “reduce redundancy” from operations at Bradley Hospital.
Kelli Price, a registered nurse at Women and Infants Hospital, spoke passionately about her fears on job security if the systems merge and become the largest employer in the state.
“The bottom line is important, but we have to look beyond that,” said Price, who also said that a number of her family members are employed at both systems. She also called for inclusive hiring practices, not just for employees but also for positions on the administrative level. “The board. The administration. Will they look like my community? Will they understand my needs?”
She added, “If I lose my job it’s going to be really difficult to find another nursing job in the area. And I don’t want to lose my union protections.”
Dawn Williams, also a registered nurse at Butler, said the state should “only approve this merger with strong union growth.”
“We know the only way patient care becomes a primary focus for these systems is if they listen to their unionized workforce,” she said.
Nearly two months after Attorney General Peter Neronha deemed the application for the proposed blockbuster deal between Lifespan and Care New England Health System “complete,” his office released thousands of pages of the application to the public at the end of December.
The documents shed light on what a newly merged system would look like, if the state’s regulatory bodies and Federal Trade Commission, approve the deal. Many of the documents have been redacted, but according to the Hospital Conversion Act application, executives “do not anticipate changes in current overall staffing levels for the first three years” since services will remain the same.
It’s unclear what would happen to employees after that three year period is over. And Neronha has until March 16 to either approve, deny, or approve the merger with stipulations.
Union leaders also on Thursday called for a union representative and frontline workers to serve on the board.
“It should not just function as a philanthropic group,” said Patrick Quinn, executive vice president of Service Employees International Union District 1199 New England (SEIU 1199), which represents over 2,300 registered nurses, clerical staff, nurses aides and assistants, service workers, maintenance workers, mental health workers, therapists, therapy assistants, and other professionals within Care New England.
Quinn also said local control and nonprofit status are two things the union is happy they are seeing on this deal, but that executives need to build a “comprehensive workforce strategy.”
Some members of Rhode Island’s business community offered their support for the proposed merger, and said it would be an “economic development” driver to the state, including Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce; Gregory Mancini at Build Rhode Island, which is a coalition of construction workers; and David Langlais, the business manager of the Iron Workers 37 union.
Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, said this merger could be “a model for the rest of the country” if it’s done right.
For the first hour of Thursday’s virtual meeting, which was hosted by the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office and the state health department, executives from both systems and Brown University boasted about how combining forces would serve Rhode Island well. The executives were not asked to speak, but signed up to make their case.
Statements read from the two CEOs, Brown president Christina H. Paxson, and presidents at a number of the individual hospitals echoed what they’ve said in the past: That this merger would keep costs low, improve access to care, and would create a “financially resilient system.”
Dr. Timothy Babineau, the president and CEO of Lifespan, offered a personal story about his father being the only doctor in a small town, which is what inspired him to go into health care.
“Doctors live by the saying ‘Do no harm.’ People think it’s part of the hippocratic oath. But it’s what doctors say when they are sworn in,” said Babineau. “My ethics as a doctor would not allow me to advocate for this merger so strongly if it would do harm. But it won’t... This merger is in the very best interest of [Rhode Island]. I feel that with every fiber on my body.”
But some community members pushed back on statements made by executives.
“I heard everyone say the word ‘equity,’” said Miguel Sanchez, who is on the board of the Olneyville Neighborhood Association in Providence . “But none of them were people of color. That’s concerning to me.”
Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz, who serves on the state’s Equity Council and is running for governor, said this merger “should not be the start of equity.”
“That should already be happening. There needs to be more community leaders in these discussions. Instead, they are an afterthought,” he quipped. “Money seems to be the only thing that matters to these systems... And I truly wish that was not true.”
The next public comment meeting is scheduled for Jan. 26. Members of the public can sign up to provide testimony online. The Attorney General’s office said a third public comment period will be scheduled for sometime in February.