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  February 4, 2014

Nurse Says He Was Fired After Speaking Out Against Hospital Merger

Nurse and activist Tim Thomas alleges he was wrongfully terminated for speaking out against a merger that would hurt quality of service and increase prices for customers at the hospital where he worked for three decades
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Tim Thomas has been a registered nurse working in acute care hospitals for 36 years and has been a labor activist for most of that time. He has worked at Watsonville Community Hospital for almost 30 years in the operating room and post-anesthesia care unit. Tim has also been a board member of the California Nurses Association for two terms, and has been on many volunteer missions including the disaster relief effort in Haiti. 


JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

The California Nurses Association has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against Watsonville Hospital for firing 36-year veteran nurse Tim Thomas. It alleges Thomas was terminated after criticizing the merger of Watsonville's Hospital's parent company, Community Health Systems, with Health Management Associates at HMA's Florida shareholder meeting in early January. HMA shareholders approved the $7.6 billion acquisition. And if the deal is successful, the combined company will form the largest for-profit hospital chain in the country in terms of the number of hospitals.

We reached out to Community Health Systems, but they didn't return our call before the time of broadcast.

Now joining us is Tim Thomas. He worked at Watsonville Hospital for the past 30 years before being fired for allegedly speaking out about patient safety.

Thank you so much for joining us.


NOOR: So, Tim, can you tell us what you talked about at the shareholder meeting of the HMA's in Florida in late January?

THOMAS: Yeah. I and many other nurses went out to Florida to protest the hospital's acquisition of the HMA hospital chain. Basically our point was that we've noticed that when hospitals acquire, you know, other large groups of hospitals, it tends to fractionalize their interest in specific hospitals like my little community hospital, where I work. They kind of develop more of a corporate response to the situation at the hospital. And we've noticed that it increases costs, it reduces the interaction with local government, and it's just a bad deal for the community and the patients all the way around.

NOOR: And talk about some of those impacts you've seen where you worked for the past 30 years and whether these problems are getting worse.

THOMAS: Absolutely. You know, the CHS acquired our little community hospital of Watsonville about ten years ago, and it has gradually become more corporatized and more severe, and with this most current retaliation toward the nurses, really feeling like there's a distance between the nurses, the patients, and the hospital governance.

NOOR: And why do you feel that you were terminated?

THOMAS: Well, you know, it may just be a coincidence, but it just happens that, you know, in the middle of the increased anti-hospital activities, that not just me, several other people and the mood at the hospital has just been fairly draconian toward moving toward this new corporate, you know, policy.

NOOR: And so, you know, looking at a report from the California Nurses Association which says some for-profit hospitals charge up to ten times the total cost of providing services, and six of the nine most expensive hospitals in the country are part of either community health systems or health management associates. So how do we get to this point where the hospital is charging $1,000 for $100 of service, for example? And, you know, the hospitals would argue that it's just the increasing cost of doing business these days.

THOMAS: Well, I think if their increases were in line with all the rest of the hospitals, you know, it might be understandable. But what we're seeing is this difference between what they're charging and what, say, the medical center or whatever is charging. And it happens to be in their dynamic of having these isolated hospitals out in the country that there's not really any alternative care and there's no real constraint against them charging whatever they want. For a lot of these patients, it's not affordable, practical to go somewhere's else to get care. So it's kind of like they've put theirself in this position of being the only game in town and then jacked up the rates.

NOOR: And CHS would argue that this merger would help them keep costs down. What's your response?

THOMAS: Yeah, that's not been our experience. What we've noticed is that as the hospital groups get bigger, the costs go up, not down. Now, in their case it may be that their profits are--I'm sure they're expecting the profits to go up. And there's the efficiency. What we would like to see is their care go up and their service go up. And I don't think that's their main interest.

NOOR: And with the rising cost of health insurance, what impact does that have on patients or prospective patients?

THOMAS: I think there's a very direct impact on a lot of patients, and we'll really get part of this evolution into this corporate model as the patients are showing up for absolutely necessary procedures and asking how they're going to pay. You know, they say, check, cash, or credit card. And it puts a lot of people in a horrible position of, one, they don't pay and they don't get care, or two, they put it on their credit card and bankrupt their whole family. And I've seen it happen.

NOOR: And what solutions, what type of solutions would you like to see to address these problems?

THOMAS: Well, I think that the bottom line--and every hospital has its reserve of experts right at their doorstep, and the people that actually give the care that are the experts giving the care are the nurses, and all they have to do is ask them. And I think the nurses would be very happy to help solve any number of problems. And that's where we're really having the problem is the hospitals are really cutting off that communication and not listening to the people that actually provide that expert care.

NOOR: Tim Thomas, we want to thank you for joining us.

THOMAS: Yeah, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

NOOR: You can follow us @therealnews on Twitter. You can Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor.

Thank you so much for joining us.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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