Santa Clara County settles dispute over threats to doctors
Santa Clara County has settled an unfair labor practice charge with Valley Physicians Group, a union representing more than 450 doctors in the county health system. File photo.

A prolonged dispute between Santa Clara County and its doctors appears to have come to an end.

Santa Clara County has settled an unfair labor practice charge with Valley Physicians Group, a union representing more than 450 doctors in the county health system. The complaint stemmed from letters threatening unionized doctors against striking over stalled contracts and untenable working conditions. The settlement includes the county retracting the threatening statements made by its executives and requiring training on California labor law.

Rachel Ruiz, chair of Valley Physicians Group and a pediatric gastroenterologist with Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, told San José Spotlight the heart of the settlement is the county acknowledging it’s at fault in threatening the doctors, and must retract the hostile letters sent by Jeff Smith, former county executive, Chief Medical Officer Phuong Nguyen and Paul Lorenz, CEO of Santa Clara Health & Hospital System.

“Coming out of the post-Smith era, I think (the settlement) is a win on both sides,” Ruiz told San José Spotlight. “We want to move forward but also make it clear that … we’re going to speak out and stand up for what’s right, our protected rights and we don’t tolerate intimidation.”

Smith, who oversaw the dispute among the emergency department doctors, proved to be a controversial figure during his 13 years in office. Physicians other workers at VMC said the executive was tone-deaf and unsympathetic to their needs.

A spokesperson for Lorenz directed questions to the county executive’s office.

James Williams, the county executive who replaced Smith in July, told San José Spotlight he hopes to work closely with the county’s unionized doctors to improve the public health system financially and continue to expand the quality and access of service.

“It was a challenging negotiation on both sides, and this (settlement) is a part of moving on from that and moving forward in a really positive direction,” Williams told San José Spotlight. “The issues that were going on then are just not relevant today and hopefully won’t be in the future.”

The county reached an agreement with Valley Physicians Group last October, just days before its unionized doctors planned to strike. Ruiz said the contract that added standardized pay increases is an improvement for doctors who worked the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there’s still more to be done.

“We’re a safety net hospital system,” Ruiz said. “We want fair wages … we (also) want to be able to advocate for our patients and help them get better access to care. That I think we’re still fighting (for).”

In March, emergency department doctors had another win. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved a new, five-year management contract with San Jose-based Emergency Physicians Associates Management Corporation. The company already provides similar services at the county’s other two hospitals, O’Connor and St. Louise Regional. The doctors at VMC fought the county over renewing itse existing contract with US Acute Care Solutions. The physicians claimed US Acute Care Solutions put profits over patient care.

Ruiz said some departments are not accepting new patients. Whether it’s due to a staffing shortage or “culture” issues, she’d like the county to work with doctors on addressing the situation.

“We have physicians leave all the time,” Ruiz said. “Why are they leaving? … How can we make clinics and hospitals run more efficiently? With James Williams, we’re hoping we can be a part of the solution.”

Contact Ben at [email protected] or follow @B1rwin on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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