This week, UC administrators have pushed an estimated 13,000 UC medical center patient-care workers, members of AFSCME 3299, into a two-day strike. It’s important to be clear on what this is all about: patient care.
Taxpayers help fund UC hospitals — facilities that bank hundreds of millions in profits each year. But the university is under-resourcing frontline care to the point where both patients and providers are being unnecessarily put at risk.
UCSF just eliminated 300 patient care jobs — nursing staff, pharmacy technicians and so many others — just as the system prepares for a tsunami of new patients with the onset of healthcare reform.
UCSF is a poster child for the seemingly systemwide race to the bottom on issues of safe staffing. This includes asking providers who are already stretched thin to do more with less as well as an increasing reliance on inexperienced temporary workers and volunteers. That may look great on a balance sheet, but it looks terrible if your loved one happens to be lying in a UC hospital bed. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
UCLA just received its second substandard patient safety rating in as many years from a leading health-care buyer’s group. The UC Regents just settled a $1.2 million federal whistleblower lawsuit alleging patient neglect at UC Irvine. Last year, a federal watchdog agency warned of “systemic failures” at UC Davis Medical Center. There have also been 11 formal findings of “immediate jeopardy” by the department of public health at UC Irvine and UCSF medical centers.
Most recently, John Stobo, the UC senior vice president for health services, acknowledged that UC “clinical care needs improvement” and that the system is lagging in affordability, patient satisfaction and even patient outcomes. And when hospitals aren’t staffed appropriately, there can be real human costs — preventable patient falls, undersanitized facilities, hospital-acquired infections and a greater risk for mistakes.
It comes down to priorities. Today, the fastest growing segment of workers at UC medical centers consists of the highly paid executives who never see or touch a patient. Executive payroll has spiked $100 million annually since 2009. New profit incentives have driven reckless cost cutting systemwide. Top hospital administrators are getting seven-figure salaries, six-figure bonuses, $300,000 annual pensions and millions more in supplemental benefits.
Such largesse diverts resources away from frontline care. But UC executives have gone further. They demand that the lowest-paid patient care workers make additional sacrifices — unpaid breaks, skeleton crews, broken equipment and cuts to their already modest livelihoods — to subsidize it.
For the cost of one fewer beach house or yacht, UC executives could take an important step toward arresting the growing safety risks afflicting their hospitals. But they refuse. Instead, they recently threatened to sue the UC Regents, demanding even more exorbitant pensions. And sadly, they have made it clear that they are willing to hold safe staffing and patient care hostage unless their golden handshakes are protected.
At the University of California, it shouldn’t be that the only thing growing faster than student tuition and patient care costs is the number of millionaires being created at their expense from within the ranks of UC management. That’s not how you build or maintain a world-class health delivery system. It’s how you degrade one.
AFSCME 3299 has negotiated in good faith for almost a year. Our priorities include crucial protections for our patients, like enforceable safe-staffing standards. We were the last to issue a proposal to the university. But it has refused to offer anything in return that would not perpetuate an already dangerous status quo.
The decision to strike was a difficult one for our members — including respiratory therapists, MRI techs, radiologists, diagnostic sonographers, certified nursing assistants and so many others. Thousands of votes were cast with more than 97 percent support for one very good reason: Patient care workers know that failing to act today could invite disastrous consequences for the huge influx of new patients we can expect in the coming years.
Patient safety is and will always be our top priority. That’s why we have volunteered a select number of workers to staff the most critical care areas in UC hospitals during the strike and developed a Patient Protection Task Force to help respond to unforeseen medical contingencies.
It’s also why we welcomed the state Public Employment Relations Board’s decision last week to issue a formal complaint against the university for its repeated refusal to cooperate with us on either initiative.
We are fighting to restore the UC system to its rightful place as the crown jewel of California’s health delivery system. We are fighting for our patients and our families. And we hope you will join us on the picket line or contact UC administrators and ask them to settle a fair contract that puts patient care before profits.
Kathryn Lybarger is the president of AFSCME Local 3299.