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Opinion

Op-Ed: Unions euthanize nursing homes

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Opinion,Matt Patterson,Op-Eds

Once upon a time, a group of health care workers walked off the job, abandoning the aged and infirm under their care. Others -- according to reports -- actively sabotaged their patients' medical care -- though thankfully, no one was irreparably hurt.

This is no fairy tale, but a real life horror show that unfolded recently in New England. Last July, HealthBridge Management, which operates 32 nursing care facilities, was confronted with an employee walkout at five of its Connecticut nursing homes.

The striking workers were members of New England Health Care Employees Union, an affiliate of the Service Employees International. They were objecting to a new contract advocated by HealthBridge that would have required employees to pay more for their health coverage. Union reps wanted the previous contract, which had expired in 2011, to remain essentially unchanged.

HealthBridge balked, and for good reason. The nursing care industry, even under the best of conditions, operates on thin profit margins. HealthBridge claimed that the union's demands would make its costs unsustainable. But the union was unmoved, and so its members walked off the job en masse.

They remained on strike for eight months, while the dispute worked its way through the courts. Then, on Dec. 11, a federal district court judge in Connecticut ruled that HealthBridge had acted illegally by imposing a new contract unilaterally, and ordered them to bring the striking workers back under the original labor agreement. On March 3, the striking workers returned, displacing dozens of replacement workers whom HealthBridge had hired to keep operations running.

The replacement workers, many of whom had moved from out of state to take their positions, are now out of luck. Also out of luck are the patients, many of whom had reported that the replacement workers were far superior, according to one inside source who spoke to this columnist on condition of anonymity.

Unfortunately, the long and costly dispute (merely bringing in the replacement workers cost HealthBridge $12.5 in relocation and administrative costs) has pushed the company to the very point it was hoping desperately to avoid. On Feb. 24, five of the facilities it manages succumbed to the icy grip of bankruptcy. Unsurprisingly, those five fiscally comatose operations were also the epicenters of the union miscreancy.

What are we to make of these events? Union supporters will suggest that the striking workers were merely fighting for an equitable contract as is their right under U.S. labor law. Perhaps. But how then do you explain the reported acts of sabotage on the part of union workers as they prepared to abandon those in their care way back in July? Tales of union activists switching patient identification wristbands and name tags on patient doors -- potentially risking wrong medicines being administered -- surfaced in police reports as the strike unfolded.

If true, such acts move union behavior from a sin of omission (walking out and refusing to give the care they were contracted to give) to a sin of commission -- outright seeking to harm those whose safety they were entrusted with.

Union greed euthanized these nursing homes. Let's be thankful that's all they killed.

Matt Patterson (Mpatterson.column@gmail.com) is a senior fellow, Center for Economic Freedom, at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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