HCA Healthcare employees on Thursday said they sent a letter directly to the company's investors about lack of personal protective equipment and workplace safety concerns during the coronavirus pandemic, asking them to meet with workers and to seek answers from the giant hospital chain.
Employees said the Nashville-based system's "PPE protocols may be systemically putting lives at risk."
"Even though we as workers are at the core of the company's ability to operationalize their business, we believe we are not valued by company leadership," workers wrote in a letter signed by six employees from different states. "Six months into the COVID-19 crisis, HCA is still not consistently providing life-saving PPE, and in some cases is instead forcing caregivers to utilize less reliable masks or to risk cross-contamination by re-using single-use PPE for multiple shifts."
HCA said it believed the letter "was orchestrated by the SEIU as part of their continued effort to attack hospitals across the country" and was meant "to spread misinformation in an attempt to gain publicity."
"No outside group takes the health and safety of our workers more seriously than we do, and since day one, our top priority has been to protect them – to keep them safe and keep them employed – so they can best care for our patients," HCA said. "Any suggestion otherwise ignores the extensive work, planning and training we have done to ensure the delivery of high quality care during this pandemic."
The federal government estimates that 192,299 healthcare providers have tested positive for COVID-19, 771 of whom have died, although that data is incomplete. Kaiser Health News and The Guardian have recorded at least 1,336 U.S. healthcare workers who have died from COVID-19. Workers say at least four of those deaths included HCA employees.
"The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic are unprecedented and sadly, this virus has affected the lives of so many across the world, including our own colleagues and their families. The many medical professionals and support teams that make up our organization across the country have dedicated their lives to healing the sick, and we grieve with the families who have lost loved ones," HCA said.
In the letter and in a recent lawsuit, workers said the company has asked them to work without necessary PPE and with COVID-19 symptoms, without adequate contact tracing, to forgo sanitization and to ignore workplace safety measures. They highlight that the company is reducing supply costs while increasing profits.
HCA said it screens and tests employees, requires universal masking, performs contact tracing and has a PPE steward at each hospital to ensure proper use and fit of equipment. The company also said it offered pandemic and quarantine pay programs, hotels for workers treating COVID-19 patients and counseling services for nurses.
HCA reported $668 million in net income during the third quarter that ended Sept. 30, a 9% increase in profits year-over-year, according to company financial filings. That followed 38% year-over-year gains during the second quarter of 2020.
HCA earlier this month announced it would return all of its $1.6 million in federal COVID-19 relief grants, as well as $4.4 billion in Medicare accelerated payments.
In the second quarter, workers noted, HCA decreased its spending on supplies by $370 million, or 17%, year-over-year.
"We are concerned that the second quarter was so profitable in part because the company is not spending as much on PPE as it could," workers said. "We worry that HCA's short-term profits may be coming at the expense of essential frontline caregivers like ourselves and the health and safety of our patients, families and communities."
Supply spending also declined in the third quarter, falling $126 million, or 2%, compared to the prior year, according to the company's most recent financial filing.
"As the largest health system in the U.S., HCA's choices play an important role in our nation's critical public health needs at this time, and investors should ensure that HCA takes necessary steps to protect essential frontline caregivers, patients, communities and investors," workers wrote.
HCA did not directly address supply costs but did say the company has "dedicated significant resources to protect our colleagues throughout the pandemic."
HCA operates 187 hospitals and about 2,000 surgery centers, freestanding emergency rooms, urgent care centers and physician clinics in 21 states and the United Kingdom and employes 280,000 workers.