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Starkman: A Primer for Darryl and Tina on Why Corewell Nurses Want to Become Teamsters

November 05, 2023, 5:00 PM

The writer, a Los Angeles freelancer and former Detroit News business reporter. He blogs at StarkmanApproved.com

By Eric Starkman

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Darryl and Tina

Darryl and Tina don’t get it, so I’m stepping up to the plate and educating them about the troubled hospital system they’re tasked with running.

Darryl is Darryl Elmouchi, COO of Corewell Health, and Tina is Tina Freese Decker, CEO of the Grand Rapids-based hospital system. Darryl and Tina prefer the informal, as that’s how they signed their lame response to Jewish community leaders who expressed concerns about a demonstration organized by the Arab American Medical Association held in front of Corewell’s Royal Oak hospital with protestors chanting war slogans and displaying placards that are widely regarded as calls for a violent overthrow of Israel.

The informality was likely an attempt to demonstrate that despite pocketing millions of dollars a year to run a “nonprofit” hospital system, Darryl and Tina put their scrubs on one leg at a time, just like the medical peons who work for them. Yes, I know, Tina has no medical credentials to speak of, but her bio says she “leads from her heart” and “inspires through innovation and collaboration,” so presumably she occasionally visits her surgical wards where scrubs are required.

To Freese Decker’s credit, her bio fesses up that she was “a key architect” of Spectrum Health’s 2022 takeover of the troubled Beaumont Health System. But as is typical of Freese Decker’s statements, her reference to the “integration” of Beaumont and Spectrum under the Corewell Health brand is deceptive. There is no integration but rather two hospital systems -- Corewell West, which comprises the hospital system’s operations in western Michigan, and Corewell East, the eight Metro Detroit hospitals Freese Decker took over.

Elmouchi is temporarily in charge of Corewell East, and he’s brought in another senior executive from Grand Rapids to help him salvage the place. Dr. Benjamin Schwartz, a hot shot physician Freese Decker hired from New York and touted for his “proven ability to drive excellence, a strong developer of teams and culture, a dynamic communicator, and a strategic systems thinker,” left after 13 months, a supposedly “mutual decision.”

Indications are that Darryl and Tina have no clue as to the alarming degree of disgruntled employees working at Corewell East, particularly the nursing staff. Their ignorance could cost them bigly.

As I recently reported, a movement is afoot with Corewell East’s nurses to organize and become part of the Teamsters. Hospital administrators hate unions because they are effective at negotiating wage increases, which means less available money for them. Studies show that patient care improves when nurses unionize. University of Michigan’s teaching hospital, ranked among the best in the country, has a unionized workforce.

Slashed Benefits

Darryl and Tina both have MBAs, respectively from the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa, but one must wonder if they took any labor relations classes. Faced with a mounting union organizing attempt by Corewell’s Metro Detroit nurses, Darryl and Tina thought it was an opportune time to slash employee healthcare benefits.

Corewell last week notified its Metro Detroit employees that it was significantly raising deductible requirements and the maximum allowance for out-of-pocket expenses under its revised healthcare plan. Adding insult to injury, Corewell employees are covered under Priority Health, which Corewell owns and profits from.

I suspect that even GM CEO Mary Barra, who I regard as the gold standard for poor labor relations management, would be dumbfounded.  

It’s known that Corewell isn’t fond of the Teamsters because the hospital system refused to recognize the union, which represents some 200 nurse anesthetists serving its Royal Oak, Troy, and Grosse Pointe hospitals where the most lucrative surgeries are performed.

Many of these anesthetists were previously Beaumont employees but former management pawned them off to a Texas-based outsourcing firm called NorthStar Anesthesia, and they eventually joined the Teamsters. Corewell recently wanted the NorthStar nurse anesthetists to become hospital employees again, but they insisted that any possible return would have to be negotiated by their Teamsters union.

Corewell's management so feared the Teamsters that it went to NorthStar and persuaded the outsourcing firm not to dump the hospital system. NorthStar had already given notice that it wouldn’t seek to renew its Corewell contract.

Elmouchi ignored a request for comment, as did Rob Zeiger, Corewell’s VP of communications and community relations, and Mark Geary, the company’s spokesman.

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Conditions at Beaumont Health were fast declining under former CEO John Fox and COO Carolyn Wilson, and have deteriorated further since Corewell took over. A shortage of nurses is particularly acute.

At Corewell’s Dearborn hospital, the nursing shortage is so punishing that recently there were only two nurses to treat 60 patients lining the hallways of the ER. The severe shortage makes it difficult to attract temporary nurses because the probability of error is significant, and the nurse, rather than hospital administration, would be blamed.

Nurse staffing issues are severe at Corewell’s Wayne hospital, which serves a mostly indigent community. During the pandemic, Wayne was designated as a Covid facility. But Fox without explanation temporarily closed the facility and transferred some 40 Covid patients, some on ventilators, to other area hospitals. Some of those patients died.

Wayne has never recovered from Fox’s unexplained closure. Some 60 nurses quit, and Corewell relies heavily on temporary nurses from other hospitals to keep the place running. Understandably, getting nurses to work at Wayne is a challenge because the chances of them getting attacked or experiencing other forms of violence are commonplace.

“Corewell is failing their patients, but they don’t care,” one nurse told me, understandably not wanting to be identified for fear of management retaliation. “It’s just about the money (to management). That has negative impact on the nurses. We take this stuff home.”

Troy Hospital

At Corewell’s Troy hospital, once the best managed with the highest safety rating, surgeries are getting delayed because there’s insufficient staff to sterilize equipment. Most of the hospital’s stretchers are broken.

Corewell a few months ago forced out Mark Leonard, Troy’s COO, who was so beloved and respected that employees began crying when they heard the news. Corewell recently fired the hospital’s president, replacing him with a Fox loyalist who formerly oversaw Beaumont’s Royal Oak hospital and fired the head of pediatrics after he warned budget cuts would harm patient care.

Surgical staff say there are constant delays getting lab results because Corewell decided to centralize the function at the Royal Oak hospital, which doesn’t have enough staff. According to one source, some of the lab equipment isn’t state of the art.

In its former heyday, working at Beaumont was a source of pride, as the hospital system was highly regarded as being among the best regional hospital systems in the country. That allowed Beaumont to pay lower wages because getting a healthcare job there meant you were among the best in your field.

Today, seemingly anyone with a pulse and a nursing degree from anywhere can get hired right out of school.

“It used to be tough competition (getting hired as a Beaumont nurse) but now we just open the doors and bring ‘em on in,” one Corewell insider admitted.

Employees dissatisfaction at Corewell’s Metro Detroit hospitals is coming to a head, particularly among the nursing staff, which is why many want to join the Teamsters. The dissatisfaction was captured in a heartfelt note one nurse posted anonymously on a Corewell union organizing Facebook page, which I’m republishing below. A source who shared the posting said it captured the mood and feeling of Corewell’s Metro Detroit nurses.

I’ve identified the author, who said they posted anonymously because they didn’t want to attract attention to themselves. 

Darryl and Tina would be wise to read the posting. So far, Corewell’s strategy to combat the Teamsters is to disparage the union and its qualifications to represent healthcare workers.

Attacking the UAW and its leadership didn’t work for GM and Ford in their recent contract negotiations and I’m doubtful it will prove an effective strategy going up against the Teamsters.

I could be wrong. There must be some reason that Darryl and Tina get paid the big bucks. From what I’ve seen, it’s a very closely guarded secret.

Here's what the nurse posted: 

I survived the pandemic.  I will not say that I worked through it, because what I did was much more than that. 

Sixteen hour shifts wearing the same N-95 mask I had worn for a week.  Sixteen hours of taking that same mask off and putting it into a paper bag to keep it safe for later.  I left work with lines on my face from the pressure of having it tight enough to keep myself safe, to keep my family safe.  The headaches were horrible from not only wearing that mask, but not getting a break the whole day.  The community fed us sometimes.  The donations had to be approved through the company first, even though they did not make sure we had food.  The community said we were heroes.

Sixteen hour shifts because we were beyond short staffed.  Why?  Our department found out after the public did that we were closing our doors and being sent to a different unit with only four hours to shadow.  After weeks of that, we were told our hospital was closing altogether and we were being separated and sent to different hospitals.  I received the call at 0400 that I would have to report to a new facility for my 0700 shift.  I did not even know where to park or how to get in the building, much less where the equipment was that I would need to save a life.  The majority of our nurses left because of how we were treated.   Still some of us stayed to care for our community.  It had to be done right?  Our patients, the ones that survived, and their families said we were heroes.

Sixteen hour shifts because those of us that were left were working ourselves sick.  So many days we cried to each other at work.  We cried ourselves to sleep.  We cried behind the face shields, goggles, masks, and gowns.  We saw and heard things I pray we never do again.  We facetimed loved ones so they could say their last goodbyes.  We held our patients’ hands so they would not die alone.  We will never be the same.  We were called healthcare heroes by the loved ones and friends of the people we cared for.

The company profited from our pain.  They were so quick to say that it was the nurses who saved lives.  They said nurses were the heroes that made a difference and were the reason why the business survived.  They took credit for the work that we did, and still do.  The company made millions.  We worked without the proper equipment, while we were criticized for making due with what we had.  We worked sick.  We worked broken.  We showed up every day to make sure those who needed us the most were cared for. 

Today, you want us to be quiet.  You want us to take what we are given and look the other way.  You want us to work for twelve and sixteen hours without a break and come back day after day to do it again.  You want us to be alright with sacrificing patient care to help your bottom line.  You want us to be manipulated and made to think that we do not deserve better.  This is no longer an option.

We, the nurses and “heroes”, are still here.  Our stories may not all be the same, but we are.  We are tired.  We are burned out.  We suffer from PTSD from the hell we endured.  We work more short staffed now than ever before.  Our benefits are laughable.  We are ignored when asking for safe patient ratios.  We will no longer be the pawns you can abuse to make your millions.  We were each other’s strength during the most tumultuous time in modern nursing and we will continue to be.  We are here and are united.  During the pandemic, we showed that together we could conquer anything.  The incredible ingenuity, bravery, fortitude, compassion, and resilience was unlike anything I have ever seen.  Do not take us for granted.  We will not be underestimated or forgotten.  We will not be told to HUSH.

Reach the writer at eric@starkmanapproved.com. Confidentiality is assured.

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