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St. Charles physicians, health care workers file for union representation, call for more say in decision-making

(Update: Adding video, comments from St. Charles, medical group)

Health system official: We 'respect their right' to join union, but would 'far prefer to work directly with them'

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) — About 300 St. Charles employees, including hospitalist Dr. Josh Plank, filed for union representation Friday, upset with St. Charles administrators' decisions and seeking a greater voice in their workplace and future.

“With the bottom line as the focus, we miss the reason we are in this profession,” Plank said. “We are very concerned St. Charles will make more staff cuts to improve the bottom line, but will only serve to hurt patient care.”

The group is represented by the Central Oregon Providers Network, and are seeking to join the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, a national union that includes 200,000 health care workers.

The group is not asking for better pay or benefits, like many unions often do. 

Dr. Jennifer Neahring, a palliative care specialist with St. Charles, said the group wants better care and better quality for the patients.

“If we are not included at the table right now, we risk losing essential services for people in Central Oregon they will have to travel hours to get,” Neahring said. 

The group, including physician assistant Erin Butler, said it feels St. Charles does not include them in key decision-making processes, such as recently announced layoffs and eliminated vacancies, department downsizings and lab closings.

“We are the people providing the care, not the administrators,” Butler said. “Decisions are being made based on dollar signs, rather than people.”

ER physician Lester Dixon referred to the layoffs that helped inspire the need for a union.

“They fired all of the physician assistants in the hospitalist program, and we don’t want to see that again, or anything like that. It’s not patient-centered,” Dixon said. 

In response to the call to unionize, St. Charles chief physician executive Dr. Jeff Absalon said in a statement: 

“We want to reassure our community that patient care is and will continue to be our top priority … We greatly value our employed providers and respect their right to take this step, although we’d far prefer to work directly with them in partnership."

Plank said the group looks forward to working with St. Charles, and wants to give input now, to truly make sure patient care is top priority.

“My patients should not be viewed as numbers or dollar signs, they are human beings who come to St. Charles expecting the best care,” Plank said. 

About two-thirds of the intended union group signed cards in support of the move. The group hopes to have an election in the next few weeks to certify the union.

Here's the rest of the AFT news release, in full, and a statement from St. Charles.

The providers work at the four St. Charles hospitals and other healthcare facilities across six cities in Central Oregon—Bend, La Pine, Madras, Prineville, Redmond and Sisters. COPN hopes to hold an election in the coming weeks. It is relatively rare for physicians and other advanced-practice providers to seek union representation, making this effort especially significant.

The hospital system is facing a serious financial crisis, which COPN contends is a result of poor choices made before and during the pandemic. The union says that current management choices to address the budget crisis—choices that are detrimental to the quality of patient care—are being made without providers’ collaboration or input. Through a union and collective bargaining, COPN says it would work with hospital management to agree on decisions that will protect patients and their care.

“With a union, St. Charles will no longer be able to ignore our input affecting patient care. We need to be at the table and work with the administration to ensure patients are the top priority. Through collaboration, we can improve patient care and ensure responsible decision-making,” said Dr. Josh Plank, a hospitalist.

Tracy Kennelley, an urgent care physician assistant-certified, said she is concerned about increasing patient volumes and short-staffing.

“There’s no leeway when a provider has to call out. With upcoming budget cuts, that frequently leaves a solo provider in our Prineville and La Pine locations. It’s not safe for the patient or the provider,” Kennelley said. “We all are concerned that revenue is trumping patient care and that providers are required to see a certain number of patients per shift.”

Dr. Les Dixon, a St. Charles emergency department physician, said: “The Central Oregon Providers Network is standing together with one voice to advocate for better patient care for our community. We are the professionals who work directly with patients and know what it takes to provide safe, high-quality healthcare. Administration has ignored our input. With a union and collaboration, we can ensure responsible decision-making and preserve patient care through this financial crisis and beyond.”

Debbie Rief-Adams, a family nurse practitioner at St. Charles Sleep Center, said ignoring healthcare workers jeopardizes patient care. “Medical providers should have a seat at the table. Our union needs and wants to work with the administration to address working conditions and the quality of care we provide our patients and the community,” she said.

Mollie Skov-Ortega, president, Pacific Northwest Hospital Medicine Association, PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center, in Eugene/Springfield, Ore., said she was thrilled to learn about the St. Charles organizing effort.

“When we voted to unionize almost eight years ago, it gave us the strength and the voice to be able to stand up for what matters most: patient care and patient safety. We stand behind the St. Charles group so they can have the opportunity to do the same,” she said.

The AFT represents 1.7 million pre-K through 12th-grade teachers; paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel; higher education faculty and professional staff; federal, state and local government employees; nurses and healthcare workers; and early childhood educators.

St. Charles Health System, made aware of the union petition plans, issued this statement Friday morning:

Statement on St. Charles Medical Group providers’ plan to unionize

On Thursday, St. Charles learned that four St. Charles Medical Group providers are planning to hold a press conference today to announce their intention to unionize.

St. Charles Medical Group is the employed provider arm of St. Charles Health System. It encompasses about 300 physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, certified nurse midwives, licensed clinical psychologists and other health professionals. Many providers who practice in St. Charles’ hospitals are not part of this group.  

“As always, we want to reassure our community that patient care is and will continue to be our top priority,” said Dr. Jeff Absalon, chief physician executive for St. Charles Health System. “We greatly value our employed providers and respect their right to take this step, although we’d far prefer to work directly with them in partnership while navigating these unprecedented times. We know many health care workers are frustrated and exhausted after the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our focus as individuals and a health system needs to be on healing and recovering from the pandemic and stabilizing our finances so that we can preserve and strengthen the vital health care services that we provide to our community.”

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Noah Chast

Noah Chast is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Noah here.


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