Court Won't Review Lien Policy, Delivering Victory to Hospitals

Health Care by Laurence Darmiento

The hospital industry has scored a legal victory in defense of its practice of placing liens on monetary damages won by injured patients even after being paid by insurers for treatment.

The state Supreme Court declined to review a Court of Appeal ruling that upheld the practice in Swanson v. St. John's Regional Medical Center, meaning that the lower court ruling is the law of the state at least temporarily.

Hospitals say the practice, which usually involves placing liens on damages won by injured auto accident victims, helps compensate them for the true cost of giving care to patients insured through managed care.

"We are pleased with the court's ruling," said Mark Klein, a spokesman for Catholic Healthcare West, owner of St. John's. "This is good public policy and will help emergency rooms stay open in California."

Of course, patients who have seen portions of their damage awards seized by hospitals don't see it this way. To them and their attorneys the hospitals are doing no less than double dipping. And despite the Supreme Court's action June 26 they still have hope their view may prevail.

That's because another state appellate court has yet to issue a final ruling on a separate challenge of the practice in a case involving Scripps Health in San Diego. A preliminary ruling actually favored patients, but the hospital successfully convinced the appeals court to reconsider the matter.

Since the high court did not take up the case and issue a ruling, the appellate court is not obliged to follow the Swanson precedent.

Should the appellate court stay with its initial ruling, there would be two contrary appellate court rulings, a situation likely to force a full hearing before the Supreme Court.

"This is not the last word," maintained William John Weilbacher, the plaintiff's attorney in Swanson.

Labor Troubles

Efforts to save WATTSHealth Foundation Inc., which was seized by the state last year, are angering remaining workers at the Inglewood-based health foundation.

Workers there went on strike for two days last week, complaining that a new contract they were offered by a state-appointed conservator amounted to nothing more than takeaways.

"It's really bad," said Deborah Young, 45, a health educator. "We are overworked, and we are not getting a lot of support."

The foundation, both a managed care plan largely for Medi-Cal patients and a string of community health clinics, was seized after its health plan fell behind on a growing number of claims payments.

Since then, the conservator has worked to separate the two distinct businesses, and in the process has scaled back the clinic operation. Workers who are represented by the Service Employees International Union say only about half of the foundation's 500 workers remain.

Last week's strike was prompted by a contract offer the union claims would freeze pay while increasing insurance costs.

The employees have been working under a contract that expired Oct. 31 but that both sides agreed to extend while a plan was worked out to save the foundation.

Conservator Frank Stevens did not return calls for comment.



Staff reporter Laurence Darmiento can be reached at (323) 549-5225 ext. 237, or at ldarmiento@labusinessjournal.com.


Hospital Hit With Labor Charges

By LAURENCE DARMIENTO
Staff Reporter

The Service Employees International Union has filed nine unfair labor practice charges and was preparing more last week in an increasingly bitter labor dispute with management at Queen of Angels-Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center.

The complaints followed two short strikes since May 13 when the union's contract with the East Hollywood hospital expired, as well as the firing of 18 nurses last month for allegedly participating in an illegal sickout.

Despite months of negotiation, the two sides have failed to reach an agreement on a new contract, which would cover all hospital workers except those in the finance unit of the Tenet Healthcare Corp.-owned hospital.

Management has offered a three-year contract with an 11 percent pay raise over the three years and improved health benefits, while the union wants a one-year contract with an across-the-board 7 percent pay raise and implementation of a pay scale in line with area hospitals.

The union says its proposal will attract more workers and solve a staffing shortage it claims has compromised care, something management denies. It also wants a greater voice in staffing issues, something it has won from other systems.

But management claims the intensity of the dispute arises out of the union's desire to organize Tenet's other hospitals, less than a quarter of which are organized in Southern California.

"Their desire goes way beyond Queen of Angels-Hollywood Presbyterian," said Albert Greene, the hospital's chief executive. "If you read their picket signs they talk about Tenet. There is nothing on them about Queen of Angels."

Union officials don't deny that they would like to organize other Tenet hospitals, but say they would just like to reach a contract agreement.

"This is the worst reaction I have seen management taken at a health care facility," said Steve Matthew's the SEIU's lead negotiator. "It's a clear union busting approach they are taking. People are disgusted."

The unfair labor practice charges accuse management of illegally retaliating against and threatening workers, and the union was preparing eight more charges related to the firings of the 18 nurses and other issues.

Greene said the hospital had the right to fire the nurses because under a federal law designed to protect patient safety, unions must give a 10-day notice of any labor action.

The alleged sickout occurred one day before a planned May 24 strike. The union claims there was no sickout, and that understaffing at the hospital has led to an absenteeism problem.

The allegations were filed with the National Labor Relations Board, which evaluates them before deciding whether to pursue a civil complaint against the hospital.

If the hospital is found culpable in any of the charges, remedies could include reinstating any illegally fired workers and a requirement to halt any other unfair practices.

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