My dream job these days would be representing nursing unions. PR is among my core competencies, and I’d consider it doing God’s work educating the American public why they should stand in solidarity with nurses on strike or seeking to unionize. Your life might just depend on it.

The commercial media, forever deferential to the ruling corporate class, would have you believe the pandemic is responsible for the critical nursing shortage. While the pandemic exacerbated the situation, the nursing shortage loomed for years but the suits who run most U.S. hospitals were too dimwitted to address the matter, instead making matters worse. Things have come to a head because hospital suits care most about profits and their grossly inflated compensations, while nurses are more focused on patient care. Studies show that the quality of patient care increases when nurses unionize.

Hospital nurses get fired for going public with their patient safety concerns, which is why they were opting to unionize long before the pandemic. Hospital managements in recent years have stretched nurses to the breaking point, increasing the ratio of patients they are responsible to care for while paying substandard wages given their responsibilities and health risks, as well as curbing their benefits. In addition to being treated badly by hospital managements, nurses are often disrespected by physicians and patients. It’s not a job for the faint of heart.

Suicide statistics attest to the stress of working in nursing. Nurses are 18 percent more likely to commit suicide compared to individuals in the general population, according to a recent study published by JAMA Psychiatry. The study’s findings are even more alarming given they are based on data spanning from 2007 to 2018. It’s reasonable to assume that nurses experienced dramatically higher pressures in 2020 treating Covid patients and helplessly watching many of them die, as well as their colleagues. One recent study reports that nurses have accounted for 32 percent of all health-care-worker-related deaths owing to Covid, and that nurses have died at nearly twice the rate of physicians.

John Fox

Rather than address nurses’ concerns as they increasingly sought to organize, hospital managements instead opted to hire costly union busting consultants to intimidate and frighten them. One example is Michigan’s Beaumont Health, whose CEO John Fox is the poster boy for all that’s wrong with U.S. healthcare. In 2019, well before the pandemic, nurses at Beaumont’s flagship hospital in suburban Detroit sought to organize as the hospital’s decline was well under way. Fox spent nearly $2 million on union busters whose intimidation tactics were so successful the Michigan Nurses Association vowed it would never again seek to organize at Beaumont because of management’s “climate of fear.”

Union busters specializing in the intimidation of nurses is a fast-growing specialty, as hospitals prefer to spend big money on preventing nurses from organizing rather than remedying the causes driving them to unionize in the first place. Nurses increasingly are fed up, opting to leave the profession. As more leave, hospitals are required to hire nurses from temp agencies, who are often better paid than the nurses they replaced or work alongside with. That’s fueling a lot of resentment, and many veteran nurses are increasingly opting to work as temps, where they can make more money and often demand the patient ratios they are prepared to tolerate. It’s a vicious cycle, one of the American hospital industry’s own making.

“I did not sign up for (my hospital) taking advantage of the fact that I have a calling,” Theresa Adams, a veteran nurse at a Ohio hospital who quit to become a so-called “travel nurse,” told Kaiser Health News. “There is a difference between knowing my calling and knowing my worth.”

Although many U.S. hospitals are suffering severe nurse shortages, Michigan’s Beaumont is worse off than most. CEO Fox recently issued a public plea asking Detroit-area residents to avoid Beaumont’s eight-hospital emergency rooms except for critical care matters. Fox shamefully intimated that unvaccinated patients were responsible for taxing the hospitals’ resources, when in fact Beaumont had a paucity of Covid patients system-wide. Beaumont’s ERs were overrun because the nursing shortage forced the closing of entire wards, so patients in need of admission just lingered in the ER. At one suburban Beaumont hospital, an ICU patient was treated in the ER.

Beaumont Windsor Recruitment Ad

Beaumont is looking to recruit Canadian nurses in neighboring Windsor, as well as in the Philippines where other U.S. hospitals are on the hunt for nursing talent. That’s stressing the healthcare system in the Philippines, where nurses are leaving in droves because of what they say is poor treatment from hospital managements in their own country. According to the Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines, as many as 10 percent of that country’s nurses have quit in recent weeks, imperiling patient care nationwide.

It’s safe to assume that many, if not most, of the Filipino nurses who quit will find their way to U.S. hospitals. What I find galling is that KHN reports that some states are compensating hospitals for their costs to recruit foreign nurses, essentially rewarding hospital managements for their HR incompetence.

Patient care suffers when a hospital’s staff isn’t part of the community. An 82-year-patient will receive more involved and compassionate care if she is recognized as the mother of Teresa, who heads the local parent-teacher association and whose daughter goes to school with the son of a tech who cleans surgical instruments.

Indeed, that’s how Beaumont deteriorated to the degree that it has. Fox’s primary home is in Atlanta, from where two of his two top aides commuted from. The former COO commuted from Grand Rapids. The rest of Fox’s senior management team also came from elsewhere and have since moved on to greener pastures. Michigan was just a job layover.

Saum Sutaria

Saum Sutaria, who was named CEO of Tenet Healthcare last month, is another example of the callous hospital company CEO far removed from patient care. The hospital chain last week reported a $448 million quarterly profit, and Sutaria proudly declared he was pleased with “how the enterprise performed in an environment that remains challenging, but full of opportunity.” Sutaria made no mention of striking Tenet nurses at various hospitals across the country protesting what they say are unsafe conditions, including a Massachusetts hospital where nurses have been on strike for more than six months. Sutario’s bio says he spent more than two decades working at McKinsey as a leader in healthcare and private equity practices, which tells you all you need to know about his values and mindset.

Ron Rittenmeyer, Tenet’s former CEO, last year was paid $17 million. In 2019, he was paid $24 million.

Importing hospital CEOs instead of nurses would be a great step forward to reforming America’s broken and corrupt healthcare system. One need only look to Canada and the U.K. to appreciate the bargains to be had.

Dr. Kevin Smith, CEO of University Health Network, last year earned the U.S. equivalent of $674,312 to oversee Canada’s largest academic hospital system and the biggest health research institution in North America. The highest paid executive in the U.K.’s health service in 2019 earned the U.S. equivalent of $657,751.

Beaumont’s Fox in 2019 earned $6.8 million to run Beaumont’s eight hospital system into the ground. Based on the golden parachute paid to a predecessor, Fox stands to make more than $30 million if regulators approve Grand Rapids-based Spectrum Health taking over the hospital network he destroyed. That’s on top of the more than $20 million he’s already received since joining Beaumont some six years ago.

The compensation disparity between U.S. hospital executives and their foreign counterparts is obscene. Fox’s possible more than $30 million golden parachute would provide a nice chunk of cash to attract some of the best-trained and most experienced nurses in North America. Breaking up Tenet’s 60 hospital systems would likely lead to an improvement in overall patient care, as the tens of millions of dollars wasted on overpaying top managers could be redeployed to hire experienced U.S. nurses rather than import foreign care givers.

Something to think about if you pass your local hospital and see striking nurses with signs protesting their working conditions and warning about patient safety issues. Let them know they have your support and treat them with the respect and admiration they deserve. Otherwise, U.S. hospitals will soon be overwhelmingly staffed with cheap foreign labor with no ties or cares for the communities they serve.

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Kathleen Struzik

You hit the nail on the head! The changes I have seen in the healthcare system after working as a nurse in hospitals for over 43 years are scary. You definitely saw the change from focus on patient care to money to be made and paid to the upper management. What I do not understand is that I thought it was against the law to interfere with union organizing activities but these guys can spend millions and use tactics (such as nurses being fired) to keep unions out. Beaumont Health’s Royal Oak flagship hospital sits in US Representative Andy Levin’s district. He was at one time in his career a trade union organizer . His first job out of school was was with Service Employees International Union where he helped organize nursing home workers. Is he totally unaware of what is going on in his district?

A Beaumont Nurse

Where were you Mr. Starkman when we started our Union Drive 3 years ago? How I wish I would have known of you then and welcomed your guidance. I am so tired of hearing about the greed at the top of the health care chain. The public needs to be aware, and how it effects patient care and the nursing shortage. I am at the end years of my nursing career, and thankful as the current situation of healthcare is horrendous. When I graduated in 1983 I was amongst the largest nurses graduating and going into the workforce. The nursing shortage was started before the Pandemic, then COVID just threw a match onto that fire and now there is a large bulk of nurse getting to retire in the next few years including myself. It’s a sad and scary situation.
Thanks for the article.

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