Midnight, Wednesday, Oct. 13, Physicians for Healthy Hospitals (PHH) finally closed its deal to purchase Valley Health Systems (the local public hospital district) on Wednesday. The physicians’ first action was to let several dozen employees go. So far at total of 14 registered nurses have been asked to leave and more than 40 other employees.
“Today marks the beginning of a new era in quality healthcare for our communities and area residents,” said Dr. Alex Denes, spokesman for PHH, in a press release. “We will honor voters’ confidence in PHH by rebuilding our hospitals into centers of medical excellence, with an emphasis on quality patient care.”
Thursday night a vigil for the dismissed staff was held outside the hospital. At the corner of San Jacinto and Devonshire streets, cars, vans and trucks blared their horns in support of the former hospital staff. The noise made conversation difficult.
“Ninety-six percent of VHS’ approximately 1350 employees were rehired as PHH employees. Those not hired represent departments across both hospitals and include staff and management, union and non-union members,” said Jerri Randrup, the VHS vice president for communication and marketing. “Some were caregivers. The law requires that we maintain specific staffing ratios between patients and caregivers.”
At least seven emergency room (ER) nurses and several from the regular night shift were part of the group the physicians chose not to employee, according to John Stead-Mendez, labor representative for California Nurses Association. Lawanda Turner has more than 20 years working in emergency and critical care nursing. VHS paid her a bonus to join their staff.
But many more, Jessica Lopez and Helen Ostott had been with VHS for decades. Lela Valencia had been 15-year registered nurse in the ER. Rose, a resource secretary for the ER, had been with VHS for years.
“It’s a travesty. People should be concerned,” Stead-Mendez said. “There will be drastic understaffing in the ER. A year ago, PHH said they wanted to keep the ER in the community. Who will hold them to their commitment? This seems politically motivated.”
Current VHS Vice President for Communications Jerri Randrup did not respond to questions about the criteria for the doctors’ decision to not hire these employees. None had been told they were underperforming. Many of the employees felt it was retaliation for their involvement in employee organizations.
“I checked the hire dates and there has not been a nurse hired into ER since August despite the fact that there have been positions posted there for some time. So it is simply disingenuous to claim as, Jerri Randrup did, that ‘We've continued to fill vacancies as they've occurred.’ In fact, they have not filled vacancies in ER for months and they just created [seven] more vacancies there,” Stead-Mendez said in an email.
“I’ll fight the battle 24/7 now,” Turner said, angry about how the nursing staff has been treated. “I’ll protect the workers.”
While she was not concerned about a new job for herself, she worried about her co-workers and patients. “The quality of care isn’t what is should be,” she stressed.
While ER nurses were being asked to leave, many remember that the hospital apparently was still trying to fill its ER staffing.
Lopez, a respiratory therapist, has more than 30 years experience. She now has to find new employment. She cares for grandson Elijah, who is now worried about where Grandma will work.
“I could lose my home, I have no savings,” Sharon Robinson, an oncology nurse, lamented. She was hired only 90 days ago, although she has more than 20 years nursing experience. While some nurses already have potential new jobs, many are still looking and worried. Despite state mandates for minimal nurse to patient ratios, the market for nurses has been weak according to many.
While many will have problems until new jobs are found, most still expressed concern about patient care. “We assumed they would be adding staff for winter,” Turner said.
When PHH initially engaged the district in selling the hospitals, one of the main arguments was the doctors lived here and wanted to protect the community. One nurse lives only two blocks from the hospital. Nurses are in high demand and she already has potential leads, but now she will work outside of the community.
In an interview a year ago, (October 2009), Dr. Alex Denes, one of the PHH founders and spokesman, said “We want to provide as much [medical] service as the communities need. We need to re-establish trust in these hospitals.
During the interview, Denes said PHH”s data suggested that almost 50 percent of patients from the Hemet area and close to 80 percent from the Menifee Valley service area seek medical care outside this hospital district.
“Keeping patients and getting them to return to this healthcare system will be a high priority for PHH” Denes added. “Look at emergency room utilization. We’ll need to make it more appropriate. This is not a ‘quality of care’ issue, it’s about the enormous wait. Sometime people have to sit six to seven hours wait for help. No one, not even the doctors like this.”
Most were informed early Tuesday morning as they came for their shift. Apparently VHS officials were concerned about employee reactions to the dismissals and asked Hemet Police to safeguard the hospital. Several police squad cars were seen parked outside the hospital Tuesday morning.