Workers at three Tenet Healthcare hospitals in Southern California will hold a rally May 6 to highlight their concerns about staffing, wages and benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the union that represents them.
The rally comes as the National Union of Healthcare Workers is in negotiations with Dallas-based Tenet for more than 600 direct Tenet employees at Fountain Valley Regional, including respiratory therapists, nursing assistants and X-ray technicians. The union is also in negotiations with the Compass Group, a food and support services provider, for about 225 housekeepers and food service workers at Tenet California hospitals in Fountain Valley, Los Alamitos and Lakewood, who are subcontracted by Tenet and employees of Compass.
Union spokesperson Matt Artz told Becker’s workers contend Tenet has remained profitable during the pandemic, but it did not implement appropriate safety measures. He said Tenet also rejected proposals to better staff certain units, and it has rejected the union’s proposal to stop subcontracting out the housekeepers and food service workers who have struggled to afford healthcare.
The union said Tenet, a major for-profit hospital operator, has the financial means to address these issues. The company reported a $97 million profit in the first quarter of 2021. Tenet stock also recently hit a new 52-week high, according to an April 29 report from Zacks Equity Research.
“These profits are not helping workers or patients,” Christina Rodriguez, a respiratory therapist at Fountain Valley (Calif.) Regional Hospital, said in a May 5 news release. “They’re being made at the expense of patient care and the people who have put their health on the line to help patients during this pandemic. At the height of the surge, I would go home crying that we didn’t have enough staff to help patients struggling to survive.”
Tenet contends the issue is not about Tenet but rather about negotiations between Compass and the union. Tenet said it is focused on staff and patients.
“This matter is not about us. It’s about a negotiation strictly between the NUHW and the Compass Group, which is a vendor that provides a range of food, laundry and other support services to hospitals,” Tenet told Becker’s. “At all times, our main concern is the safety of our staff, the integrity of our facilities and the best possible outcomes for our patients, and we remain hopeful that the NUHW and Compass will reach a positive outcome at the conclusion of their respective negotiations.”
But the union said Tenet can decide whether to bring the subcontracted housekeepers and food service workers in-house, which would benefit them in terms of wages and health benefits.
Meanwhile, Compass said it will continue to negotiate in good faith, with union members.
“Our hardworking team members are at the heart of what we do, and their determination to provide best-in-class care and service is inspiring,” a Compass spokesperson told Becker’s. “We take pride in paying competitive wages and providing affordable benefits and continue to uphold our agreement with the NUHW. We have a long history of listening to our employees, working productively with unions, and will continue to meet and negotiate — always in good faith.”
Respiratory therapists, housekeepers, nursing assistants, medical technicians, dietary workers and others represented by the union said they plan to rally from 11 a.m. to noon May 6 outside Fountain Valley Regional.
The rally, scheduled after Tenet’s shareholders meeting, includes workers from Los Alamitos (Calif.) Medical Center and Lakewood (Calif.) Regional Medical Center. Union workers whose jobs are subcontracted to Compass will speak during the rally, the union said.
Employers — including companies, state governments and universities — purchase health care on behalf of roughly 150 million Americans. The cost of that care has continued to climb for both businesses and their workers.
For many years, employers saw wasteful care as the primary driver of their rising costs. They made benefits changes like adding wellness programs and raising deductibles to reduce unnecessary care, but costs continued to rise. Now, driven by a combination of new research and changing market forces — especially hospital consolidation — more employers see prices as their primary problem.
The prices employers pay hospitals have risen rapidly over the last decade. Those hospitals provide inpatient care and increasingly, as a result of consolidation, outpatient care too. Together, inpatient and outpatient care account for roughly two-thirds of employers’ total spending per employee.
By amassing and analyzing employers’ claims data in innovative ways, academics and researchers at organizations like the Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI) and RAND have helped illuminate for employers two key truths about the hospital-based health care they purchase:
1) PRICES VARY WIDELY FOR THE SAME SERVICES
Data show that providers charge private payers very different prices for the exact same services — even within the same geographic area.
For example, HCCI found the price of a C-section delivery in the San Francisco Bay Area varies between hospitals by as much as:$24,107
Research also shows that facilities with higher prices do not necessarily provide higher quality care.
2) HOSPITALS CHARGE PRIVATE PAYERS MORE
Data show that hospitals charge employers and private insurers, on average, roughly twice what they charge Medicare for the exact same services. A recent RAND study analyzed more than 3,000 hospitals’ prices and found the most expensive facility in the country charged employers:4.1xMedicare
Hospitals claim this price difference is necessary because public payers like Medicare do not pay enough. However, there is a wide gap between the amount hospitals lose on Medicare (around -9% for inpatient care) and the amount more they charge employers compared to Medicare (200% or more).
A small but growing group of companies, public employers (like state governments and universities) and unions is using new data and tactics to tackle these high prices. (Learn more about who’s leading this work, how and why by listening to our full podcast episode in the player above.)
Note that the employers leading this charge tend to be large and self-funded, meaning they shoulder the risk for the insurance they provide employees, giving them extra flexibility and motivation to purchase health care differently. The approaches they are taking include:
Some employers are implementing so-called tiered networks, where employees pay more if they want to continue seeing certain, more expensive providers. Others are trying to strongly steer employees to particular hospitals, sometimes know as centers of excellence, where employers have made special deals for particular services.
Purdue University, for example, covers travel and lodging and offers a $500 stipend to employees that get hip or knee replacements done at one Indiana hospital.
Negotiating New Deals
There is a movement among some employers to renegotiate hospital deals using Medicare rates as the baseline — since they are transparent and account for hospitals’ unique attributes like location and patient mix — as opposed to negotiating down from charges set by hospitals, which are seen by many as opaque and arbitrary. Other employers are pressuring their insurance carriers to renegotiate the contracts they have with hospitals.
In 2016, the Montana state employee health plan, led by Marilyn Bartlett, got all of the state’s hospitals to agree to a payment rate based on a multiple of Medicare. They saved more than $30 million in just three years. Bartlett is now advising other states trying to follow her playbook.
In 2020, several large Indiana employers urged insurance carrier Anthem to renegotiate their contract with Parkview Health, a hospital system RAND researchers identified as one of the most expensive in the country. After months of tense back-and-forth, the pair reached a five-year deal expected to save Anthem customers $700 million.
Legislating, Regulating, Litigating
Some employer coalitions are advocating for more intervention by policymakers to cap health care prices or at least make them more transparent. States like Colorado and Indiana have passed price transparency legislation, and new federal rules now require more hospital price transparency on a national level. Advocates expect strong industry opposition to stiffer measures, like price caps, which recently failed in the Montana legislature.
Other advocates are calling for more scrutiny by state and federal officials of hospital mergers and other anticompetitive practices. Some employers and unions have even resorted to suing hospitals like Sutter Health in California.
Employers face a few key barriers to purchasing health care in different and more efficient ways:
Hospitals tend to have much more market power than individual employers, and that power has grown in recent years, enabling them to raise prices. Even very large employers have geographically dispersed workforces, making it hard to exert much leverage over any given hospital. Some employers have tried forming purchasing coalitions to pool their buying power, but they face tricky organizational dynamics and laws that prohibit collusion.
Employers can attempt to lower prices by renegotiating contracts with hospitals or tailoring provider networks, but the work is complicated and rife with tradeoffs. Few employers are sophisticated enough, for example, to assess a provider’s quality or to structure hospital payments in new ways. Employers looking for insurers to help them have limited options, as that industry has also become highly consolidated.
Employers say they primarily provide benefits to recruit and retain happy and healthy employees. Many are reluctant to risk upsetting employees by cutting out expensive providers or redesigning benefits in other ways. A recent KFF survey found just 4% of employers had dropped a hospital in order to cut costs.
Employers play a unique role in the United States health care system, and in the lives of the 150 million Americans who get insurance through work. For years, critics have questioned the wisdom of an employer-based health care system, and massive job losses created by the pandemic have reinforced those doubts for many.
Assuming employers do continue to purchase insurance on behalf of millions of Americans, though, focusing on lowering the prices they pay is one promising path to lowering total costs. However, as noted above, hospitals have expressed concern over the financial pressures they may face under these new deals. Complex benefit design strategies, like narrow or tiered networks, also run the risk of harming employees, who may make suboptimal choices or experience cost surprises. Finally, these strategies do not necessarily address other drivers of high costs including drug prices and wasteful care.
The union that represents 1,300 resident physicians at Ann Arbor-based Michigan Medicine said the health system is exploiting its members as both sides negotiate a new contract, according to Michigan Radio.
The University of Michigan House Officers Association and Michigan Medicine are trying to reach an agreement before the current contract expires in late June. But compensation remains a key sticking point.
Ruth Bickett-Hickok, MD, a second-year anesthesiology resident, told reporters May 18 she’s been treating COVID-19 patients and seeks a cost-of-living raise, according to Michigan Radio.
“Frankly I’m here because, for lack of a better term, Michigan [Medicine] residents right now are being exploited for their labor. Especially during this crisis,” said Dr. Bickett-Hickok, who is on the union board. She also cited her debt load for undergraduate and medical school in her reasoning for seeking a cost-of-living raise.
Overall, the union says it wants fair wages that recognize the risks physician residents have been willing to take on during the pandemic.
In a statement provided to Becker’s Hospital Review, Michigan Medicine spokesperson Mary Masson said the health system “recognizes the important role of the [union] members” and amid the pandemic “has honored the compensation package previously proposed to the HOA, which includes salary increases.”
Ms. Masson said Michigan Medicine is undergoing a $400 million expense reduction plan with furloughs and layoffs affecting about 1,400 full-time employees. Physician residents’ salaries range from $58,500 to $82,900 annually based on experience. Ms. Masson said to provide even higher salary increases, Michigan Medicine would have to eliminate additional jobs.
The union proposes that the health system use part of the university’s endowment funds to help cover the new labor deal.