By Peter Dreier
Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, Calif., has been in the news twice in the past two weeks. But the stories weren’t about one of its doctors discovering a cure or inventing a new life-saving procedure. They were about 11 tragic deaths that occurred at the hospital and about the hospital’s costly and illegal union-busting campaign that forced Huntington into signing a settlement agreement with the California Nurses Association.
This is what happens when a hospital puts profits over people—its patients as well as its employees.
The 625-bed facility made headlines when it reluctantly admitted that 11 Huntington patients had died between January 2013 and August 2015 after being infected by dangerous bacteria from medical scopes. Another five patients were infected but are still alive. The hospital acknowledged the deaths only after the Pasadena Public Health Department (PPHD) was about to release a report about the outbreak of multi-drug-resistant (MDR) pseudomonas aeruginosa linked to procedures (called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography) performed with scopes made by the Olympus Corporation.
The city agency’s investigation, which began last August with an unannounced site visit and continued with cooperation from hospital staff, blamed both the design of the scope and the hospital for lapses in infection control. For example, according to the report, the hospital used canned compressed air from Office Depot to dry the scopes—which is not recommended by the manufacturer or by nationally recognized cleaning guidelines. The PPHD report triggered stories in the Los Angeles Times headlined “11 deaths at Huntington Hospital among patients infected by dirty scopes, city report says” and “Pasadena hospital broke the law by not reporting outbreak, health officials say.”
Initially, Huntington only notified patients who had been treated with the scope between January and August 2015 about the possibility of infections. The PPHD, after it began its investigation, insisted that Huntington notify all patients who had been treated with the scopes since January 2013. The PPHD had to ask Huntington twice to notify those earlier patients before the hospital complied.
The duodenoscope is, according to the Times, “a long snake-like tube with a tiny camera on the tip that is inserted into a patient’s throat and upper gastrointestinal tract. It is used to treat cancer, gallstones and other problems in the bile or pancreatic ducts.” The PPHD report concluded: “This broad bacterial contamination supports the hypothesis” that the hospital’s disinfection and maintenance “were insufficient to prevent the spread of infection.”
“We take responsibility for the deficiencies outlined in the [Pasadena Public Health Department] report and have taken steps to ensure rigorous compliance going forward,” wrote Derek Clark, the hospital’s director of public relations, in an email response.
The same week that the story about the deaths broke, Huntington also made news when it reluctantly agreed to a settlement with the California Nurses Association (CNA). The hospital agreed to rescind the firing of registered nurses Allysha Shin (whose last name was Almada before she was married last October) and Vicki Lin and restore their full back pay. Both were illegally fired as part of Huntington’s vicious and expensive anti-union campaign last year.
The results of last year’s union election were overturned. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will determine a new election date. Huntington also agreed to abide by labor laws that protect the RNs’ right to organize and agreed to post its commitments throughout the hospital and email the notice to all nurses.
It would hardly be news that a hospital has agreed to obey the law, except that Huntington so egregiously broke the law last year that they had to put it in writing before CNA would approve the settlement agreement.
During last year’s organizing campaign, the union caught Huntington engaging in dozens of illegal acts of intimidation designed to prevent the nurses from gaining a stronger voice in their workplace. CNA brought these unfair labor violations to the federal National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which ruled against the hospital. Hospital officials were scheduled to testify on June 6 before an NLRB hearing. But on June 1, the hospital agreed, as part of the settlement with CNA, to set aside the results of last year’s election and allow the nurses to move forward with a new election.
“We have the best nurses in the world and we continue to respect all of their rights, including their right to be represented by a union, should they so choose,” said Huntington public relations director Clark.
If you’re wondering whether there’s a connection between these two news stories—the 11 deaths and the union battle at hospital—wonder no longer. There is.
Sources among nurses and CNAbelieve that the hospital knew that the deaths were due in part to its negligence in sterilizing its scopes—and its efforts to keep them secret—was about to go public, because a Los Angeles Times reporter had been asking questions. Huntington signed the settlement agreement with CNA on May 31. The Times’ first story about the scopes scandal came out the next day.
Were Huntington’s top executives worried about this double whammy of news stories about the hospital’s self-inflicted wounds? Better to settle with the union than to expose themselves to more negative publicity at the NLRB hearing, where nurses were prepared to testify about the hospital’s outrageous and costly efforts to frighten and intimidate them from organizing and voting for the union. An administrative law judge was slated to review 42 objections to the 2015 election. These included the 175 challenged ballots that led to an inconclusive election result, the firing of Shin and Lin, and other labor law violations committed by Huntington administrators. The NLRB had anticipated a three-to-four-week hearing.
“The terms of the agreement make it clear that we have the right to speak out and that the hospital’s campaign to silence us must stop,” said Terri Korrell, who has been an RN at Huntington Memorial Hospital for 42 years.