The possibility of a nurse’s union forming at Kalispell Regional Healthcare is coming to a tipping point as employees gear up to cast their votes on the matter during a two-day union election slated for July 11-12— a fast-approaching resolution hospital officials say could signal an end to the hospital’s independence, should they vote in favor of the union.
A group of nurses hand-delivered a note to the hospital’s chief executive officer, Craig Lambrecht, on June 13, announcing a petition had been filed for union recognition with the National Labor Relations Board and that Service Employees International Union 1199NW is the union that will be representing the nurses. The letter came from a group known as the KRH Organizing Committee, and according to a press release from the union, support for unionizing is widespread.
According to a case activity report, there are an estimated 650 registered nurses, charge nurses, clinical educators, and others participating in the election from Kalispell Regional Medical Center, The HealthCenter, Brendan House and other clinics. This includes all full-time, regular part-time, PRN, on-call and per diem registered nurses, said acting Kalispell Regional spokeswoman Allison Linville.
Those excluded from the unionization vote include North Valley Hospital employees, guards, supervisors and others. Hospital officials and the union collectively settled on the July election date under the guise of officials with Labor Relations.
“Our hope is that in the days prior to the vote, management won’t divert hospital resources and nurses’ and other employees’ time that should be directed towards patient care, to attend long series of anti-union meetings,” said Cindy Petorak, a registered nurse with Kalispell Regional who is part of the committee. “We want to keep our time and hospital resources focused on patient care.”
Lambrecht said Kalispell Regional has a dedicated group that is making sure “when questions come up or recommendations from the NLRB are administered that we’re attentive and can respond because we got to do all this simultaneously with great patient care,” and he hopes that “all of those who can vote, do.”
However, in an interview Wednesday, Lambrecht highlighted numerous ways in which a union may come at the sacrifice of the hospital’s autonomy.
He said one of the biggest concerns has been hospital providers voicing their disinterest toward working in an organized labor environment. He said if various providers don’t wish to work at Kalispell Regional, the hospital’s growth could be stunted, potentially leading to financial instability down the road.
“If we have situations where providers don’t want to work here and we can’t recruit and then patients aren’t coming because they aren’t confident in what we are doing, it gets really hard to create an environment of growth,” Lambrecht said. “Without that growth and that confidence in our service delivery area, there’s a chance we might jeopardize our independence and have to partner with someone else. And no one wants that.”
However, nurses on the organizing committee don’t believe forming a union has to be synonymous with a buy-out.
“We can have both our independence and have nurses be a part of the conversation,” Petorak said. “We want to have a say in things and have a say in the relationship between us and our employers.”
The nurses have requested that a collective bargaining unit be formed, in which a group of employees would be able to bargain as a banded unit with Kalispell Regional officials regarding wages, hours, benefits and other terms of employment.
But Lambrecht highlighted concerns regarding a collective bargaining agreement, namely, the costs associated with doing so and loss of relations with nurses, among others.
“There’s going to be concrete expenses of additional expertise that we’re going to need to do collective bargaining,” Lambrecht said. “We would also be restricted in a lot of areas to make changes and do things based on what the union supports.”
Lambrecht, who has only held his leadership role for about two months, said the resounding response he received from employees when asking what they enjoyed most about working at Kalispell Regional, was the hospital’s independence. He said a key component of that is frequent engagement between employers and employees - something he says may be lost should the nurses unionize.
“I think the biggest challenge is how do we remain responsive to our patients and continue to have great care and involve the employees? Because if we have an element of organized labor, that doesn’t facilitate conversation in how to do that; in fact, it’s harder for me to communicate and have relationships with these nurses.”
But Petorak reiterated that a union would simply give those on the front-line of health care a seat at the table when making important decisions. She also said many of those looking to form a union feel as though conversations have long fallen on deaf ears.
“They keep telling us that it will take away from those intimate conversations that they have had with nurses and staff, but the time for conversations has passed and there hasn’t been action and it’s going to come to the detriment of the patients,” Petorak said.
According to John Fitch, a registered nurse with the emergency department, action from management is long overdue.
“Nurses on the ground level and at the bedside want a say in making sure our patients have positive experiences and outcomes,” Fitch said. “We’re asking management to come to the table, hear our concerns and work with us to make this a safer place for our patients. Above all, we’re asking for management to put patients first.”
Hospital Officials have been aware of the nurses’ efforts to unionize since last fall, around the time the hospital reached a $24 million whistleblower settlement with the federal government.
According to the settlement terms, Kalispell Regional Healthcare and six associated entities were required to pay the government to resolve allegations of unreasonably high compensation for 63 physicians and compensation measures that improperly incentivized referrals. The settlement ended a whistleblower complaint filed by Jon Mohatt, the former chief financial officer of the hospital’s Physician Network, in 2016, that alleged the hospital knowingly violated federal anti-kickback statutes, known as Stark Law, and the False Claims Act by compensating physicians far above fair market rates and reaping financial benefits from a system of self-referrals dating back to at least 2011.
The whistleblower settlement created a rift between the hospital and the community over a perceived lack of transparency, which hospital officials have said they are working hard to repair.
A few months after the lawsuit, in early December, the Montana Nurses Association filed charges against the hospital, alleging it was in violation of the National Labor Relations Act by interfering with employees’ rights to unionize. The charge came after the hospital announced a leadership restructuring that would include modified titles, roles and responsibilities for more than 100 employees. However, after a two-month long investigation, those charges were withdrawn.
At the time, a spokesperson with the hospital said “after review of the facts, the matter was withdrawn by the MNA and NLRB closed the investigation.”
Now, more than four months later, the letter submitted to Lambrecht is a continuation of the efforts to unionize that influenced the nurses association to file charges late last year.
Lambrecht said the hospital is still receiving information from Labor Relations regarding the unionization efforts and will provide details to employees and others as they are able and as it becomes available.
Reporter Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.