Registered nurses at Community First Medical Center, a Medicaid-dependent hospital on the Northwest Side of Chicago struggling with staff and supply shortages and malfunctioning equipment, voted yesterday to unionize after failing in several previous attempts.
The vote was 207-16 in favor of joining the National Nurses United union.
Flyers backing the push cited a string of workplace complaints, such as five years without a raise; suspension and cancellation of insurance coverage despite continuing premium deductions; and security doors that won't close. The Portage Park hospital was featured last May in a Crain's story looking at the plight of Medicaid-dependent hospitals, where in Community First's case fewer than 1 in 10 patients have private insurance.
Marti Smith, a registered nurse and Midwest director of National Nurses United, said nurses at Community First will select an organizing committee in about a month. The union, based in suburban Washington, D.C., recently scored another victory at Ingalls Memorial Hospital in south suburban Harvey. It also represents nurses at Cook County Health & Hospitals System, local VA hospitals, the University of Chicago Medical Center and Jackson Park Hospital, Smith said.
Since 2015 Community First has been owned by health care lawyer Edward Green and a 50-50 financial partner. They put $10 million down for the former Our Lady of the Resurrection at Addison Street and Central Avenue and promised a $20 million upgrade over five years.
Though management has narrowed operating losses, mainly through lower discounts for service, the 296-bed hospital continues to struggle. Green hasn't returned calls seeking comment.
In a statement after the vote, Chief Operating Officer Teryna Brown said, "We hope that we can enlist the help of our nurses and their union in Springfield as we battle for fair treatment under the upcoming 2020 Hospital Assessment Program. Community First experienced a 61.4% reduction in 2018 Hospital Assessment Program dollars—one of the largest decreases in the entire state. At the same time, we saw our Medicaid and charity care population increase from 25% to nearly 50%, one of the largest increases in the state."
Despite its condition, Community First lacks official status as a safety-net hospital, which would qualify it for more public support. Requirements include a Medicaid inpatient utilization rate of at least 50 percent, or 40 percent plus a charity-care percentage of at least 4.
Community First personnel say they've used gowns and ponchos when bedsheets are in short supply; gone to a CVS to buy crutches; and have been forced to make their own saline flushes. "It sounds silly, but it's really not," said one nurse.
During MRI equipment outages, patients have been wheeled outside to a mobile unit. "Nurses are seeing how the health care industry in many cases is leaving patients behind," Smith said.
At Community First, nurses say management discontinued a tuition reimbursement program and hasn't upheld a promise to offer a matching 401(k) plan. They say they petitioned the National Labor Relations Board last month to schedule the election.
National Nurses United says it is the largest union for registered nurses in the country, with more than 150,000 members.
This article was originally published in Crain's Chicago Business.