By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — So-called “Bad actors” were scooping up healthcare facilities throughout the Philadelphia region, threatening to trigger shocks to the industry similar to the sudden closure of Hahnemann Hospital.
Healthcare workers and union officials aired these warnings on Tuesday at a Philadelphia City committee. As closures and sales have rocked the city’s healthcare landscape in recent years, new owners were failing to honor union contracts and creating potentially unsafe conditions, they said.
Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, a Democrat and chairwoman of the council’s Labor and Civil Service Committee, said Philadelphia’s healthcare industry has entered a new era where private equity firms were playing a larger role, which was negatively affecting workers.
Parker worried the worker issues in the healthcare industry could be a “canary in the coal mine.”
“The issues that they are facing due to outsourcing, mergers, and acquisitions can and do impact other workers in other industries in this city,” she said.
When Hahnemann Hospital’s parent company Academic Health System declared bankruptcy and closed the 171-year-old facility this year, the company also sold St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children to Tower Health and Drexel University for $50 million.
Joy Fleming, a nurse at St. Christopher’s, said the new owners got a “bargain rate” on the facility but have since stoked fear among workers there by refusing to recognize the union’s collective bargaining agreement, including maintaining minimum staffing levels of nurses, which puts patients at risk.
“The nurses at the hospital, who have stayed through the bankruptcy — stayed all summer not knowing what was going to happen — are really scared,” Fleming said.
“And we’re scared too that we’re going to lose more nurses and it’s going to create more unsafe conditions.”
Shanrika Nelson, a nursing assistant at Somerton Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Philadelphia, said the sale of the facility twice in the last three years led to upheavals for employees, who saw contracts canceled with each new owner.
“Each new owner brought new cuts to services and supplies and hardships for the vulnerable people who look to us to provide comfort and care,” Nelson said.
When ownership changes hands, collective bargaining agreements with former employers are rarely maintained.
“There are slim occasions where employers would be deemed a clear successor,” said Ben Patchen, deputy city solicitor in the city’s Law Department. “But, I think, absent that, there’s no obligation when a new employer comes in to honor the previous employer’s terms.”
Amanda Shimko, compliance manager in the Mayor’s Office of Labor, said there have been several recent cases in the city where new ownership has attempted to terminate a contract.
“It is a highly disruptive practice that clearly violates the spirit of collective bargaining rights and, in some cases, may also violate the law,” Shimko said.
Wendell Royster, vice president of long term care at Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare Pennsylvania which represents more than 45,000 healthcare workers across the state, warned committee members that Hahnemann’s closure was a sign of things to come for other healthcare facilities.
State oversight of nursing homes was falling short, Royster said, and potential buyers should be investigated more thoroughly to ensure they provide quality care.
Royster noted the collapse of Skyline Healthcare LLC facilities last year, when the Pennsylvania Department of Health took over nine nursing homes from the troubled provider over a slew of issues.
“Like Hahnemann, nursing homes all over Pennsylvania are being sold off to bad actors, to investors focused on profits and to negligent landlords whose sole goal is to squeeze every last dime out of workers, out of residents and their families, out of our communities,” according to his written testimony.
At-large Councilman Derek Green, a Democrat, said the day’s testimony appeared to show new owners of these facilities were putting profits above workers and patients.
“What I’ve heard is opportunities for new owners to enhance their bottom line … but nothing really motivating [them] to enhance the patient experience,” he said.