As St. Charles Health System faces financial crisis, its doctors want to unionize

After years of financial struggles, providers in central Oregon’s largest hospital and health-care system announced plans Friday to form a union.

Speaking outside the campus of St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, a group of providers said they plan to hold an election for a union, after years of what they describe as financial mismanagement by the hospital which led to reductions in staff and services.

“St. Charles made what we consider to be very bad decisions before and during the pandemic…that have plunged our healthcare system into this terrible financial crisis,” said St. Charles hospitalist Dr. Joshua Plank.

The proposed union would be made up of about 300 doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and other healthcare workers. Organizers said an election to endorse the union is expected within the next three to four weeks.

Dr. Joshua Plank speaks outside St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, where a group of providers announced on June 3, 2022 that they intended to form a union.

Joni Land/OPB

This is not the first union among St. Charles employees. The technicians and the hospital agreed on a contract in 2021, shortly after going on strike.

Organizers said they were not seeking wage increases or reduced hours, but rather greater influence over future hospital decisions, including layoffs.

The announcement comes more than two weeks after hospital executives announced they would lay off 105 caregivers and eliminate 76 unfilled positions due to severe financial losses in 2022. The hospital said it suffered losses of 21 $.8 million through April and faces an operating loss of 6.7%.

The hospital is also the region’s largest employer.

Erin Butler, a medical assistant at St. Charles, said many of her colleagues feared for the future of their jobs and could be fired at any time.

“It’s really hard to think about having a job where you potentially have one foot on the outside,” Butler said.

St. Charles cited a growing reliance on contract labor, like travel nurses, and rising equipment costs during the COVID-19 pandemic as some of the financial setbacks that have leads to layoffs. St. Charles, like many health systems across the country, has borrowed millions of dollars from the federal government for pandemic relief. This year, the US Department of Health and Human Services began to claw back some of that cash advance by not reimbursing Medicare.

Yet providers said poor financial decisions by hospital management predate the pandemic and were not included in the discussion to address these issues.

A spokesperson for St. Charles declined to address allegations of financial mismanagement beyond an earlier press release, which did not address the topic.

“We greatly appreciate our employee vendors and respect their right to take this step, although we would much rather work directly with them in partnership while navigating these unprecedented times,” Chief Medical Officer Jeff Absalon said in the statement.

An email obtained by the OPB shows that hospital management contacted employees ahead of Friday’s announcement. Absalon said in the email to staff that they don’t believe a union will benefit the whole community.

“We are disappointed with this change in direction to organize ourselves, as it may hamper our ability to work directly on solutions in the future,” Absalon said.

He also said the hospital would send employees information about how a union “could change our work environment and our culture.”

It’s rare for doctors and other providers to form a union, but Plank said doctors like him aren’t listened to by hospital management — and they want that to change.

“It shows that’s kind of where things are these days in health care,” he said. “We are not heard and we want to have a voice.”

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