Nurses in California are willing to play the ultimate card -- the countless services they provide to the state's ailing and ill.
Some 23,000 nurses in the Golden State are going forward with a massive walk-out at 34 hospitals Thursday. They are striking because of labor demands being forced upon them by the Sacramento-based Sutter Health Group. Some of the nurses participating in the strike are employed by the Kaiser Permanente group, but are joining the protest in solidarity.
The concessions, which total some 200 cutbacks, include retirement contributions, sharp hikes in health premiums, and the elimination of paid sick leave. The concessions also include a curtailing of the nurses' ability to advocate for patients, according to a report in The Sacramento Bee.
"We're very concerned about Sutter's positions. This is one of the largest, most profitable hospital chains in California," said Charles Idelson, a spokesman for the CNA. "This is not the March of Dimes, this is a corporation and they've taken a very hard line with RNs."
Indeed, the hospital industry has been one of the few bright spots in a state economy that has been famously battered by the Great Recession. As the Bee reports, the operating revenue at California's hospitals more than doubled from 1999 to 2009, from $31.7 billion to $66.3 billion, state data show. In 2010 alone, Sutter Health saw total income grow to $878 million, compared with $677 million in 2009. And among those riding the profit wave was Sutter Health's CEO Patrick Fry, who earned about $4 million during 2009, including deferred compensation, tax data show.
The strike, which is being organized by the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United, will not lead to a complete halt in hospital activity at the affected sites.
"The emergency department will be functioning, and babies will be born," said Carolyn Kemp, spokeswoman for Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland and Berkeley, according to a report in the Contra Costa Times. "The only reason we exist is to care for patients."
But many elective surgeries will be put on hold for at least the one scheduled day of the strike. The strike could continue until at least Sept. 27, as the hospitals have been forced to contract replacement staff to maintain the facilities. Many of the sites have adopted five-day contracts.
While California's hospitals have recently been profitable, Sutter argues that rising health care costs and the general economic climate have forced the group to reassess its benefits and compensation packages. Indeed, the showdown in California is further testament that even the most sacrosanct of industries -- medicine -- has not been able to avoid the most dramatic of cuts during the Great Recession. Most famously, St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan shut its doors in 2010, after 160 years of service.
That hospital was drowning in a debt of $700 million.
"The decision to close St. Vincent's Hospital-Manhattan inpatient services was made only after the board, management and our advisers exhausted every possible alternative," Alfred E. Smith IV, chairman of St. Vincent Catholic Medical Centers, said then in a statement to The New York Times.
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