Former Worcester Mayor Raymond V. Mariano writes in the Telegram & Gazette: ‘Visit from hell.’ St. Vincent Hospital profits up, health care is not

I really didn’t plan to write another column about the St. Vincent nurse’s strike. But then my sister was taken to St. Vincent Hospital.

A family member told me that she saw patients sitting and lying on hospital beds in the hallways. When my sister was finally admitted to a room, they hardly saw a nurse. When they did need something, they stopped someone in the hallway and asked for help. It turned out they spoke to a cleaning person who was kind enough to get them the help that they needed.

That experience caused me to look further.

Patients struggle

Since the strike began on March 8, I have been a strong supporter of the nurses’ efforts to set improved patient safety standards. But I never wanted to see patient care suffer just to prove the point.

I started reading horror stories online from patients who felt they were treated poorly. Kimberly wrote that she asked three times to have her IV line changed without any response. “This place is legit the worst hospital…” When she posted her experience on social media, hospital staff, who had been almost invisible, suddenly appeared to ask her to take her comments down.

Diixiie wrote about a similarly bad experience. “I recently gave birth at Saint Vincent and my whole experience was HORRIBLE…”

Nicole posted a story about an 89-year-old patient who was admitted with a cervical neck fracture. The patient was confused and when she began “yelling out” the nurse closed the door to her room. “The patient proceeded to fall on her head and sustained a pretty awful laceration.”

Tunie described her hospital experience as “cold, impersonal, assembly line environment. It honestly feels unsafe in there.”

And after spending four hours waiting to get into a room, Mark described his experience as “a visit from hell.” He said he went an entire evening without seeing a nurse and that he was not given his medication the night before, not provided any fluids, and not given any explanation for new medications. Mark was careful to point out that he and his wife had been patients at St. Vincent for years. But he warned, “DO NOT SEEK CARE HERE AT THIS TIME.”

But the most damning testimony came from some of the replacement nurses themselves.

One wrote: “Hit the floor, learn as you go and drown. Or in my case go to the bathroom and cry.” There have been reports of contract nurses crossing the picket line for a single shift and refusing to go back because “it was so horrible in there.”

One nurse reported “seeing a patient left in restraints, naked, tied to his bed crying, and when (I) went to look for his nurse, (I) found her and others huddled in a breakroom playing with their phones.”

Another wrote: “Worst assignment I’ve ever worked.”

Nurses struggle

Like the patients in the hospital, it hasn’t been easy for the approximately 700 nurses who are on strike. When their unemployment was delayed, some had to turn to food banks to feed their families.

But, by far the biggest burden for the nurses has come in dealing with their health insurance — or lack thereof.

More than two months ago, Congress included a provision in the stimulus package that allowed unemployed and striking workers to have access to subsidized COBRA health insurance benefits. However, employers had the option to wait until May 31 to send the required documentation to the nurses which they needed to activate their benefits. And that is precisely what Tenet Healthcare, which owns St. Vincent Hospital, decided to do. Even though the cost of the care is being subsidized by the federal government, Tenet chose to wait.

That despicable tactic was likely taken to force striking nurses to capitulate at the bargaining table by threatening the health of the nurses and their families. One single mother who has a child with a serious illness, another nurse whose husband has diabetes, were forced to wait for the needed care.

Yet another nurse, with a family member facing a life-threatening disease, was forced to delay care for two months. And as of May 31, the final day for the activation letters to be received, not a single nurse had received their letter.

Tenet profits

Say what you want about Tenet, they know how to make a profit. In the first quarter of this year, the company showed a $97 million profit. Over the past year, its stock price has increased more than 150% from $26 to $67.

Not bad for a hospital that has blown $65 million since the strike started on replacement nurses, police details, extra internal security, security cameras, and a fleet of buses/vans used to transport replacement nurses.

All of this is on top of hundreds of millions of dollars that they have been forced to pay to resolve federal criminal and civil charges for things like kickbacks and fraud.

They also have more than enough money to run plenty of ads in the local media including in this newspaper. Speaking of ads, the advertisements the company placed looking for replacement nurses tells the prospective nurses that they should come prepared to care for 5-6 patients at a time — precisely the point that the nurses are striking about.

All is not well inside St. Vincent Hospital.

For the sake of the patients in their care, it’s past time for Tenet management to come back to the bargaining table and end this strike.

Email Raymond V. Mariano at He served four terms as mayor of Worcester and previously served on the City Council and School Committee. He grew up in Great Brook Valley and holds degrees from Worcester State College and Clark University. He was most recently executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority. His column appears weekly in the Sunday Telegram.