Dr. Josh Plank speaks during a press conference at St. Charles Bend on Friday.

A group of doctors and medical personnel from St. Charles Medical Group want a bigger say in decisions that affect patient care and announced Friday they intend to form a union.

About 300 of the medical group’s physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and other health care workers signed cards indicating support to unionize, citing management choices, financial decisions and quality of patient care as their chief concerns. They plan to call themselves the Central Oregon Providers Network, which is under the umbrella of the American Federation of Teachers, a national union that includes 200,000 health care members and 1.7 million teachers.

“We wanted more of a voice at the table on how health care can be transformed,” said Dr. Jennifer Neahring, a palliative care physician at St. Charles Medical Group. “We felt that the administrators were unable to make those decisions without our front-line input. It’s impossible for people who are in administrative positions to understand the impact they make when weighing costs and patient care.”

The chief concern is that the doctors’ opinions would be considered as the health system weighs costs versus services.

The health system ended April $21.8 million in the red. The medical professionals want to weigh in on services and patient care, Neahring said in an interview.

On Friday, the National Labor Relations Board, an independent federal agency formed to safeguard employees’ rights to organize, had yet to receive a petition from the Central Oregon Providers Network, although the union said it was filed Friday morning.

The bulk of the contracts with physicians are set to expire at month’s end, and many were seeing productivity quotas inserted in the new contracts.

Quotas mean that less time can be spent with patients, said Tracy Kennelley, an urgent care physician assistant, in a prepared statement.

“With upcoming budget cuts, that frequently leaves a solo provider in our Prineville and La Pine locations,” Kennelley said. “We’re all concerned that revenue is trumping patient care.”

In a statement emailed Friday, St. Charles Health System, which serves eight counties, said that many of its hospital providers are not part of the group.

“As always, we want to reassure our community that patient care is and will continue to be our top priority,” said Dr. Jeff Absalon, chief physician executive for St. Charles Health System. “...We’d far prefer to work directly with them in partnership while navigating these unprecedented times. We know many health care workers are frustrated and exhausted after the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our focus as individuals and a health system needs to be on healing and recovering from the pandemic and stabilizing our finances so that we can preserve and strengthen the vital health care services that we provide to our community.”

About two weeks ago, the hospital system announced it was laying off 105 nonclinical staff and eliminating 76 vacant positions and was working to reduce spending to offset the losses.

“From the hospital standpoint, it makes sense to have productivity quotas, but if you’re a patient or the provider, it feels like the financial pressures are pushing decisions that could affect the quality of care,” Neahring said.

It is rare for medical professionals to want to unionize, said Janet Bass, a deputy director of public affairs for the American Federation of Teachers.

Typically, physicians unionize not for wages or benefits, but for a voice, said Joe Crane, the national organization director for Doctor’s Council, which represents about 4,000 physicians.

“The chief reason comes down to the fact that they can no longer advocate for their patients,” Crane said in an interview. “Many are employees now, versus the independent clinic system. What’s happening in medicine now is all about metrics. Patients aren’t widgets.”

Not all patients coming in with the same illness can be seen in a 15-minute window, Crane said.

“You can’t treat every doctor-patient interaction the same,” he said. “It can affect patient care. Bad outcomes is what will happen.”

In 2019, the nurses at St. Charles Health System Nurses ratified a 4½-year contract, and last year 154 medical technicians walked out for 11 days before coming to terms with the health system.

Roughly two-thirds of the St. Charles Medical Group — who work at the four St. Charles hospitals and other health care facilities in six Central Oregon cities — signed union cards. A vote will be taken in the coming weeks, according to a press statement.

A union will ensure collective bargaining and representatives who will work with hospital management to agree on decisions that affect patients.

“With a union, St. Charles will no longer be able to ignore our input affecting patient care,” said Dr. Josh Plank, a St. Charles hospitalist, in a prepared statement. “We need to be at the table and work with the administration to ensure patients are the top priority. Through collaboration, we can improve patient care and ensure responsible decision making.”

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(2) comments


No organization can thrive while continuing high cost operations in a low revenue world. Will unions help cut costs or grow revenue?


This will benefit patients as well as caregivers at St. Charles, where administrators have consistently put profits and their own compensation ahead of actual health care.

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