Healthcare providers organize to address patient safety and burnout

Fifteen Oregon healthcare providers, including physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants, from four Eugene-area clinics have announced their plans to file with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for union recognition. The new group, PeaceHealth Providers United (PHPU), will focus its collective bargaining power on addressing burnout, understaffing, safe patient care, and ensuring access to care for the region’s most vulnerable patients.

Oregon healthcare providers
Photo courtesy ONA

The Pacific Northwest Hospital Medicine Association (PNWHMA), an existing hospitalists union represented by the American Federation of Teachers and serviced by the Oregon Nurses Association, will collaborate with PHPU. The providers have organized across two urgent care clinics in Eugene, one urgent care clinic in Springfield, and the walk-in clinic located at Woodfield Station in Eugene.

“There is a staggering need for urgent care in the community, and we could provide many more patients with quality care, but we can’t retain staff,” says Dr. Morgan Garvin. “PeaceHealth management should be focusing on improving staffing, but instead they choose to micromanage the few providers we have left. Unionizing helps balance the scales between us and management so we can make this a place that patients recommend first to their loved ones, and a magnet workplace for providers.”

The PeaceHealth Urgent Care in Valley River clinic in Eugene, one of the four facilities that will have AFT-represented providers, has been closed since last year due to chronic understaffing and staff burnout. The impact of the clinic closure was a significant increase in demand for care from the other facilities and a dramatic increase in stress on the providers at those remaining facilities. Patients who rely on these clinics are some of the most vulnerable in the community, including people experiencing houselessness and housing insecurity, undocumented residents, and people who are uninsured or underinsured.

On June 1, the providers delivered a letter to management petitioning for voluntary recognition so that they could promptly begin collective bargaining over their concerns about patient care, staffing and other issues. After being declined for voluntary recognition by PeaceHealth administration, the providers filed for a union recognition election through traditional NLRB mechanisms on June 2.

Dr. Mollie Skov-Ortega, president of the PNWHMA at Sacred Heart Medical Center, says, “I am thrilled to hear about the PeaceHealth Urgent Care group unionizing. When we voted to unionize almost eight years ago, it gave us the strength and the voice to be able to stand up for what matters most—patient care and patient safety. We stand behind PeaceHealth Providers United so they can have the opportunity to do the same.”

Wendy Lang, a nurse practitioner and one of the providers who will be represented by the American Federation of Teachers, notes that PeaceHealth management decisions have led to unsafe staffing levels, four-hour or longer wait times for patients, and unhealthy working conditions. “In just a few months, with just a few decisions, PeaceHealth management has broken urgent care,” Lang says. “Providers are being pushed beyond their physical and mental abilities to practice medicine safely. There is no safety valve to slow down or stop patient flow; we are not treated as human beings but rather expected to perform like a machine with only one short break in a 12 to 13-hour shift. It doesn’t feel safe and is not sustainable. The union will give me a voice to advocate for my patients and my practice.”

[Oregon Nurses Association news release]