A labor dispute between a statewide nurses union and a multi-headed private investment firm has chilled the working atmosphere at 10 hospitals throughout the state, including Merrimack Valley Hospital, as the two sides trade accusations.
Steward Health Care, the health care affiliate of New York investment firm Cerberus Capital Management, has caught the ire of the 2,300 member Massachusetts Nurses Association.
The nurses union, which has over 100 members at Merrimack Valley Hospital, says the for-profit health organization has put the staff's livelihood and patient lives at risk through cost-cutting measures, such as consolidating hospital staff, closing services and actively discouraging union participation.
The MNA also says Steward has failed to honor pension contracts it entered with nurses unions when purchasing hospitals throughout Massachusetts last year.
"What we should get has already been signed," said David Schildmeier, spokesman for the MNA. "It never happened."
Steward dismisses the union's allegations and accuses the group of trying to deceive the public in pursuit of its own agenda.
The pension dispute currently focuses on four hospitals in the Boston area formerly owned by Catholic non-profit Caritas Christi Health Care, but Schildmeier said the overarching concerns have reached other local hospitals such as Merrimack Valley and Holy Family Hospital in Methuen.
Nurses from the Merrimack Valley and other Steward hospitals statewide joined together in New York City in December to protest Cerberus itself. Employees from both Merrimack Valley and Holy Family were quoted saying they feared the for-profit model of Steward.
The 500-member protest featured an inflatable model of Cerberus — the multi-headed hell hound that guards the gates of the underworld in Greek and Roman mythology — gnashing its teeth on nurses' caps. The protest was supported in part by the Occupy Wall Street movement. The MNA represents 139 nurses at Merrimack Valley and 351 at Holy Family.
Chris Murphy, spokesman for Steward Healthcare, described the MNA claims of mistreatment and service cuts as both "factually inaccurate" and "fiction."
Murphy said Steward has pledged $21 million in renovations to the emergency services at Merrimack Valley alone and stands by its minimum five-year commitment to operate the hospital regardless of profitability.
"The benefits for the patients in the past year have been tremendous," he said. "All the service lines remain in place."
Murphy said Steward added about 150 doctors from the Newburyport-based Whittier Independent Practice Association to its hospital network in November. The doctors were previously members of Anna Jaques Hospital partner Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Steward Healthcare purchased the Caritas Christi hospital network in 2010 for $830 million. Steward also purchased two hospitals owned by Essent Healthcare of Nashville, Tenn., including Merrimack Valley, for $21 million.
At the time, Mayor James Fiorentini and other Haverhill city officials backed the sale to Steward due to the company's commitment to keep the hospital open with emergency services for at least another five years.
Fiorentini said his faith in the sale was recently reaffirmed after Steward quashed the rumor of a potential closure of the hospital before the five-year pact expired.
"They assured me the rumors were not true and they'd live up to their end of the bargain," he said.
City Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O'Brien, a case manager at Merrimack Valley, did not return a call for comment on this story but did describe the sale as a "win-win" for the city last January.
City officials have kept a keen eye on the fate of the formerly city-run Hale Hospital since its sale to a private firm in 2001.
Seeking to exit the exorbitantly expensive hospital business at the time, the city agreed to cover the hospital's $85 million debt in exchange for a 10-year operational commitment from Essent.
Haverhill currently spends $7.5 million a year repaying accumulated expenses, equipment costs and pensions. The city estimates it won't pay off the Hale debt until 2023 at the earliest.