Petaluma Valley Hospital Staff Unions Caution Voters about Proposed Sale

Measure CC asks voters to determine hospital's fate

This election, Petalumans will vote on Measure CC to decide whether the 80-bed Petaluma Valley Hospital (PVH) will be sold to Providence St. Joseph Health subsidiary NorCal HealthConnect. The public hospital has been privately operated by St. Joseph Health or its affiliates since 1997. Current owner Petaluma Health Care District (PHCD) and those who endorse the sale say it will ensure the hospital remains open for at least 20 more years, but hundreds of hospital employees across two unions aren’t satisfied with the terms.

A “NO” vote would prohibit PHCD from proceeding with the sale, however, the hospital will continue to operate for two and a half more years, during which time another buyer or operator could be sought. While NorCal HealthConnect claims the hospital has “struggled to remain viable for the future,” PVH operates at a profit to its operator. Union organizers at the hospital believe that the prospective buyer, who has been involved as an operator for years, has effectively and intentionally made PVH look undesirable to others to drive down the hospital’s sale value.

Petaluma Staff Nurse Partnership (SNP), a union of about 150 bedside nurses who work at PVH currently, doesn’t endorse Measure CC. It invites voters to visit its website, where a large image of a thumb indicates how it wants the community to vote. As of Oct. 8, it’s a red thumb-down. SNP writes, “We would love to see that thumb move in the right direction, but only Providence/St. Joseph Health can make that happen. If you don’t see it go green and upright, please DO NOT vote yes.”

SNP President Jim Goerlich says, “No one is going to know if the deal Providence is offering will keep them safe more than the bedside caregivers. We are the ones who see how profit motives and predetermined budgets affect our ability to care for our patients and will be the ones most responsible in advocating for their safety going forward.”

Both SNP and the hospital’s chapter of National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) detail myriad ways they feel the hospital’s operators—all St. Joseph Health by one name or another—have failed to show continuing investment in PVH. This includes union fights for competitive wages, infrastructural needs and more. In August 2019, parts of the hospital had to close temporarily when mold was discovered.

One of the biggest concerns in the sales agreement is the future of the Family Birth Center at PVH. While the terms of sale commit to operating other branches of the hospital for at least 20 years, NorCal HeathConnect only commits to five years of operation of the OB/GYN services.

Steve Buck, director of communications for Northern California Region at Providence St. Joseph Health told The Bohemian, “The commitment is for a minimum of five years, but does not preclude operation of the Family Birthing Center for a longer term.”

However, Goerlich, who has been a nurse at PVH for more than 20 years, says that such a short commitment would be a death knell for the unit.

“[OB/GYN] Nurses can see the writing on the wall,” Goerlich says. “They’re saying, ‘I might as well go and start my tenure at another place so that I can get my seniority as I move toward retirement.’”

Buck says, “[NorCal HealthConnect] understands the community desire and need for these services and a thorough review process will occur as to the long-term determination of the Family Birthing Center.”

But hospital employees say that the prospective buyer should commit to operating the Family Birth Center for at least 20 years if they want voters to approve the sale.

NUHW created a petition to save the hospital’s Family Birth Center. Their website reads, “Bringing babies into the world isn’t a big money-maker for hospital chains like Providence, but it shouldn’t have to be. It’s an essential service of any community hospital—and one that Providence can easily afford to provide. Providence has $12 billion in cash reserves and made a $20 million profit operating Petaluma Valley in Fiscal Year 2019.”

Goerlich reiterates how impactful it is for a small community hospital to have OB/GYN services. “Most of our nurses in OB live in Petaluma … their kids go to school with kids that they helped birth. People connect to this little hospital throughout their lives; it’s a nice, tight community.”

In July, Newsweek named PVH one of the Best Maternity Care Hospitals in 2020. The study, a partnership with The Leapfrog Group, featured 231 hospitals throughout the country.

Goerlich says, “There is a possibility of losing something very, very special if it all becomes corporatized.”

Both SNP and NUHW confirm that Providence St. Joseph Health refuses to meet with both unions together, despite frequent requests.

“Right now is their opportunity to put their best foot forward, to show the Petaluma community what they’re getting,” Goerlich says. “[NorCal HealthConnect] should be selling themselves! Not making empty promises—they need to put their commitments in writing.”

While NorCal HeathConnect’s website says that PHCD’s board unanimously supports the sale, NUHW Organizer Tyler Kissinger says that the Healthcare District—who relies on rent that the hospital operator pays to them—was put in a difficult position because Providence St. Joseph has acted like a bully.

“Members of the Health Care District have worked as hard as they could to make the deal as good as possible,” Kissinger says. “They have put forward tentative terms of sale and we live in a democracy, so now it’s on us and members of the community to say either, ‘We like this,’ or ‘Here’s what we think could be better.’’’

Providence St. Joseph’s handling of Covid-19 has also been a major concern at PVH. Goerlich said the two unions pushed to meet with the hospital operator together at the beginning of shelter-in-place orders to anticipate needs. Nearly seven months later, they say that the operator has refused to meet with both unions at the same time and has failed to protect the safety of their employees and patients.

Buck says, “… the current operator has regularly met with NUHW leaders to discuss its ongoing Covid-19 response. That response includes: personal protective equipment for caregivers, hospital-paid testing for caregivers with potential workplace exposures, multiple emergency pay programs, 100 percent in-network coverage of Covid-19 conditions by the Providence St. Joseph Health group health plans, and additional childcare resources.”

But Kissinger and Goerlich both attest that many of these claims are not accurate. As of Oct. 8, NUHW has not received a response to a collective bargaining agreement they sent the operator in late August concerning PVH’s treatment of Covid-19 cases. Goerlich says that he has witnessed chaotic nights with PPE shortages and compromised negative-pressure rooms.

Kissinger says, “I think it speaks to them as a corporation [that they won’t meet with our unions together]. It’s shocking anytime, given that healthcare relies on teamwork, but it’s particularly shocking that they’ve chosen to lean into keeping us separate during a pandemic.”

On Saturday, Oct. 10, SNP and NUHW organized a rally at Walnut Park to push NorCal HealthConnect to increase their commitment to keeping the Family Birth Center open. Speakers included healthcare workers as well as candidates for Petaluma City Council Brian Barnacle, Dennis Pocekay, and Lizzie Wallack.

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