Health Care

Labor Leaders Express Optimism About Steward

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Officials with bargaining units that represent various workers at local hospitals owned by Community Health Systems Inc., as well as other local leaders, were guardedly optimistic about the hospitals’ purchase by Steward Health Care System Inc.

CHS, based in Franklin, Tenn., and Boston-based Steward announced Thursday afternoon they had reached an agreement for Steward to purchase a total of eight hospitals, including four in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys.

Those are the three hospitals that make up ValleyCare Health System of Ohio – Northside Medical Center in Youngstown, Trumbull Memorial Hospital in Warren and Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital in Howland Township – and Sharon Regional Health System in Sharon, Pa.

Terms of the deal, which is expected to close in the second quarter, weren’t disclosed in any of the news releases issued by CHS, ValleyCare or Steward. Jeff Hall, vice president of strategic communications for Steward, said representatives would be unable to discuss plans for the hospitals until the deal is finalized.

Representatives of the company will be at employee meetings today at all three hospitals.

“I know we have to be careful what we wish for, but we can only go forward from here. I look forward to this transition,” remarked Pam Shelton, president of Local 2288 of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, which represents licensed practical nurses and maintenance workers at Hillside.

Shelton said she learned within the last week and a half that a company was doing due diligence at the CHS hospitals but was unaware how in-depth that effort was until a few days ago and she started hearing rumors.

“Then today we had a name,” she said. “There have always been the rumors but today it was like, ‘This is really it.’ “

In the years since CHS took over – the system bought the major assets of the former Forum Health in a 2010 bankruptcy auction – Hillside had been “cut to the bone,” she said. Though nursing did not see any cuts, departments such as dietary, housekeeping and physical and occupational therapy did, she reported. Recreational therapy was virtually  eliminated.

“I don’t think that there is any going down any further,” she remarked. Steward is a physician-owned group and has unions at its other hospitals, so she is optimistic about the prospective new owners. “They seem to, at a first glance, have a very good reputation in Massachusetts,” she said.

An AFSCME representative spoke with the human resources director and was “very encouraged” following the discussion, said Tom Connelly, president of AFSCME Local 2022, which represents registered nurses at Trumbull Memorial.

“We’re encouraged by some of the things we’ve heard about them,” Connelly said.

“We’re trying to be optimistic about it. We’ve already been through so much,” he continued. “The last couple of years with CHS has been a challenge. Their bottom line hasn’t been doing very well and they’re putting more and more on us. … This has not been as good a fit as we had hoped for.”

Connelly also noted that, according to Steward’s website, the company puts $800 million on average into improving infrastructure at its assets, and he hoped that “a little bit of that” comes to the local hospitals once the deal is finalized.

“The real thing that we want is we want the ability to care for our patients. We want our staff to be able to go out and do our jobs,” he said.

Members are “excited about having a change and hoping that change is going to be for the better,” said Laurie Hornberger, president of the 210-member Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association, which represents nurses at Northside. “As union president, I am more than willing to work with the new system.”

Becky Williams, president of District 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, issued a statement following the announcement that she looked forward to meeting with Steward representatives in the coming days “to preserve quality care and good jobs” locally.

“We hope this change means new investment in our community and much-deserved stability to ValleyCare workers, who have faced tough challenges over the last eight years as this health system has evolved,” she said. “Together, ValleyCare workers and Steward Health Care management can build a better future for our families and preserve quality care and services for our community.”

Mayor John McNally said a local CHS representative notified him of the sale about 4:20 p.m. Thursday, around the time the media advisory was issued.

“I really hope that the new purchaser is a lot more public in its dealings with the local community” and has more of a “local presence” than CHS did, McNally said. He also is looking forward to meeting with Steward officials as soon as possible.

Sherris Moreira, executive director of the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce in Sharon, Pa., also said she hadn’t heard from the company as of Thursday evening.

“We are hopeful that local jobs won’t be affected by this change, especially in light of the fact that they are one of the largest employers in the Shenango Valley,” Moreira said. “Otherwise all we can do is wait and see what this change of ownership will mean for this long time business in our community.

“Either way, we look forward to continuing our relationship with Sharon Regional during this transition and offering any support they might need during this time period, as we always have,” she continued.

Pictured: Meetings with employees are planned at all ValleyCare Health System of Ohio hospitals, including Northside Medical Center.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.