Arbour HRI, a Brookline psychiatric hospital in recent trouble with regulators, disciplined a mental health worker for talking to the Boston Globe about problems there — an action the employees’ union is fighting.
The hospital also required all staff to sign a policy forbidding them from speaking with the media about Arbour — or risk losing their jobs, according to the union.
An article that appeared in the Globe on May 30 described findings of federal investigators that the hospital failed to provide treatment for at least four patients during a February inspection. Instead of attending group therapy, the patients, whose diagnoses included bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, spent many hours sleeping or wandering the hallways.
One Tuesday afternoon, three patients on a unit for those diagnosed with both mental illness and a substance abuse disorder were in therapy. Inspectors found eight patients in bed.
Frank Barnes, a longtime mental health worker and a union representative for 1199SEIU, was quoted in the story saying that problems at Arbour HRI reflected the culture of an administration more focused on revenue than quality of care. Barnes said he was hopeful the hospital would improve under new management, and that he had already seen enhancements.
Nine days later, according to documents the SEIU provided to the Globe, a nurse executive verbally warned Barnes. A “counseling/corrective action form’’ stated that the consequences for failing to follow the media policy could include termination.
The policy warns employees they “are not to speak to any member from the media on behalf of the facility or company,’’ and that they must immediately refer press inquiries to the chief executive.
Arbour spokeswoman Judith Merel said that the policy is intended to protect the privacy of patients and staff. “These processes are put in place to ensure that the hospital complies with all patient confidentiality and privacy laws as well as to safeguard the trust placed in us by our patients, employees and staff,’’ she said in a written statement.
But the SEIU, in a complaint against the hospital filed with the National Labor Relations Board, charged unfair retaliation against Barnes and said the “overly-broad’’ media policy violates employees’ rights.
“If Universal Health Services is treating the patients under its care with dignity and respect, then why would it prevent caregivers from talking to the media?’’ union executive vice president Veronica Turner said in a written statement. “It raises serious questions about what the company is trying to hide.’’
She said that, given the increased focus on mental health, “it is alarming that UHS would threaten employees with termination for discussing issues that they are an expert on and that are relevant and important to all of us, such as adequate staffing and safe working conditions.’’
Arbour HRI has a recent history of problems. Massachusetts regulators prohibited the hospital from accepting any patients in November, citing unsafe conditions. They allowed admissions to gradually resume two weeks later, in early December. But then in February, inspectors for the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services found serious shortcomings in the quality of treatment at the 66-bed hospital in Brookline.
Soon after, Arbour HRI’s chief executive, Patrick Moallemian, left his job. William Zella, a licensed psychologist, replaced him.
Arbour Health System operates five psychiatric hospitals and 12 mental health clinics in Massachusetts. Its for-profit parent, Universal Health Services, is a publicly traded company that earned more than $500 million last year and has staked its future largely on expanding in the behavioral health care market.
Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.