NUHW members picket Tenet hospitals; back calls for investigation into COVID relief aid

NewsJune 17, 2021

NUHW members held informational pickets outside three Southern California Tenet Healthcare hospitals demanding answers about why the nation’s second largest hospital chain is understaffing facilities and underpaying workers despite receiving billions in federal COVID-relief funds and spending $1.1 billion to buy 45 surgery centers.

The pickets outside Fountain Valley Regional Hospital, Los Alamitos Medical Center and Lakewood Medical Center came one day after NUHW President Sal Rosselli sent a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Director Xavier Becerra and Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Slaughter, in support of a request from Rep. Katie Porter ( D-Irvine) for a federal investigation into whether Tenet and other major hospital operators have misused their stimulus grants and other COVID relief funds.

“We are dangerously understaffed on nearly every shift,” said Mailinh Nguyen, a nursing assistant at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital. “We want to know how Tenet can afford to pay more than $1 billion for a chain of surgery centers, when it can’t seem to afford to provide safe staffing at its hospitals.”

The pickets were covered by the Orange County Register, Voice of OC and Becker’s Hospital Review and two Vietnamese-language newspapers including Nguoi Viet Daily News.

In a May 21 letter to Becerra and Slaughter, Rep. Porter and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) requested that the Biden Administration investigate whether major hospital companies misused federal COVID relief funds to bankroll mergers and acquisitions and conduct a hearing into the matter.

The two members of Congress cited Tenet in the letter noting that it bought 45 surgery centers from SurgCenter Development for $1.1 billion last December shortly after receiving more than $1 billion in federal CARES Act funds. They also noted that the California Department of Public Health, responding to a complaint filed by NUHW members, cited Fountain Valley Regional Hospital last year for failing “to isolate COVID-19 patients from non-COVID-19 patients or dedicate separate staff to each group during an outbreak.”

“Because taxpayer funds were misused to profit off the pandemic, the sick lost their lives and health care workers were traumatized,” Reps. Porter and DeLauro wrote.

In its annual 2020 Security and Exchange Commission filing, Tenet acknowledged receiving $2.6 billion in COVID relief funds that were intended to stabilize healthcare facilities responding to the pandemic. Tenet received $899 million in direct aid from the federal CARES Act Provider Relief Funds, $1.4 billion in Medicare Advance Payments, which serve as an interest free loan, $260 million in deferral of payroll tax match and $14 million in state and local COVID-related grant programs.

In his letter supporting the request for a federal investigation, Rosselli noted that Tenet ended 2020 with a $399 million net profit and $2.5 billion in cash reserves, more than double its cash balance in any quarter during the past 10 years. The company also used nearly $500 million in cash to pre-pay debt that was not due for four years.

“There is ample evidence to suggest that Tenet Healthcare used COVID-relief funds to improperly expand its business, enrich its executives and shareholders, and prioritize the company’s bottom line over patients and caregivers,” Rosselli wrote. “An investigation is urgently needed to investigate these matters, evaluate the actions of other large health systems, and identify steps needed to recoup any misappropriated funds.”

Despite being flush with taxpayer-funded stimulus money, Tenet has refused to increase staffing or invest in its caregivers who put their lives on the line during the pandemic.

The company is refusing to offer market rate raises to its workers in Southern California or stop the subcontracting of housekeepers and food service workers to Compass Group. The Fortune Global 500 company pays such low wages and charges such high healthcare premiums that many of its employees at Tenet hospitals have worked without health coverage during the pandemic. NUHW is demanding that Tenet stop contracting with Compass and bring the workers in-house.

“When I contracted COVID-19, I couldn’t afford to see a doctor even though I work in a hospital,” said Maria Rocha, a subcontracted housekeeper at Lakewood Medical Center. “Tenet had the funds to take care of everyone who worked in its hospitals; it’s time to find out where the money went.”