A New Jersey union is seeking to expand collective bargaining rights to physicians in private practice.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 56 in Trenton petitioned the National Labor Relations Board last week to represent about 400 physicians who contract with AmeriHealth-New Jersey, a Mount Laurel, N.J.-based HMO.
The physicians practice in Atlantic and Cape May counties.
It's the first time private practice doctors have petitioned the NLRB for the right to bargain collectively with an HMO, said Jack Seddon, executive director of the Tallahassee, Fla.-based Federation of Physicians and Dentists. The federation plans to file a similar petition (Oct. 6, p. 99).
"The insurance companies will not take this sitting down," Seddon said.
Private practitioners have been considered independent contractors under law and thus not entitled to collective bargaining over compensation and working conditions. But Local 56 likened the physician-HMO relationship to that of employee and employer. It said collective bargaining is the only way to address quality-of-care issues.
"We believe that medical care, provided through managed care, can only be improved if physicians can come together to have a dialogue with the HMOs," said Bob O'Brien, a lawyer for Local 56.
The union asked AmeriHealth and other HMOs to voluntarily recognize the union as the collective bargaining agent for the physicians. But that is unlikely.
AmeriHealth-New Jersey issued a statement challenging the union's legal assertions. The statement, attributed to Senior Vice President and General Manager Richard J. Gilfillan, M.D., said the physicians "are independent medical practitioners with whom we and other insurers contract and are not employees. We believe that . . . the National Labor Relations Act does not apply to them."
Local NLRB officials will decide whether to grant the petition, which would allow the physicians to vote on union representation. Any decision is likely to be appealed to the national NLRB in Washington.
Seddon said the UFCW's filing will not forestall his union's plans to petition the NLRB to represent private practice physicians. The federation bargains collectively for 650 Florida state employees and about 80 physicians employed at Thomas-Davis Medical Centers in Tucson, Ariz. It has not specified where it would begin organizing.
"God bless 'em," Seddon said of the UFCW's action. "We're just going to have to look at what the argument is going be from UFCW so we don't have counterproductive arguments," he said.
The union said it is spending more than $100,000 on ads for local TV and radio stations emphasizing the need for doctors to make treatment recommendations to patients without interference. A spokeswoman said the ads are being funded through member dues.
Local 56 represents nursing home, retail and other service workers in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.