Emergency workers at the Valley Medical Center walked off the job Tuesday to protest staffing shortages among physicians and unsafe working conditions during the biggest COVID-19 surge in the county.
Roughly 30 health care workers showed up in front of the VMC emergency department in protest of a month-long issue that has driven doctors away and caused long wait times for those with imminent needs. For many patients, the average wait is between eight and 14 hours, doctors and nurses at the Valley Medical Center said.
“It’s a dangerous situation,” an emergency physician at the Valley Medical Center told San José Spotlight. “I feel like someone’s gonna get hurt. I think people probably already have, and that’s what is keeping us up at night.”
San José Spotlight is not naming the health care workers because they worry about potential retaliation.
A worker in front of VMC said the emergency department has been suffering for years, but things got worse when US Acute Care Solutions (USACS) took over the physicians’ contracts in 2021.
“Most of us have to work overtime,” the worker said. “We have lost so many amazing doctors over the last few years, but especially in the last six months.”
The protesting workers want the county to either hire the doctors as county employees or find a local company to manage physicians. Workers at the rally said USACS has a bad reputation among the medical industry for putting profits ahead of patient care.
Paul Lorenz, CEO of Valley Medical Center, said VMC’s focus is always on the care of patients and that staff share that priority.
“Part of what makes the SCVMC Emergency Department successful is the collegiality of staff, the support amongst the team and each other, which is why I am confident we can work together to address any concerns while continuing to provide excellent patient care,” he told San José Spotlight.
Since June, of a staff of more than 60 people, three part-time physicians have left the site, in addition to three part-time physician assistants and one full-time physician assistant, according to Matt Patlovany, MD and chief clinical officer for USACS.
“More recently, there has been pressure from a local competitor system to recruit Valley physicians away from the site,” Patlovany said. “Nevertheless, San Jose is an attractive place to live and Valley is an attractive place to work. Recruiting to this site is not a disproportionate challenge.
As health care workers enter the third year of the pandemic, they said the county and USACS have failed to address serious concerns about staffing levels and pay during the last six months, further demoralizing an already exhausted and overworked workforce.
“We don’t want people to call us heroes,” a Valley Medical Center emergency nurse told San José Spotlight. “We just want to come to work and do our job, so support us and give us all the resources that we need.”
‘Bursting at the seams’
The tension between emergency health care workers and the medical group, USACS, has been simmering for months. In 2017, Santa Clara County entered a contract with Valley Emergency Physicians to provide doctors at the county’s hospital emergency rooms. When USACS acquired Valley Emergency Physicians last year, some workers saw a reduction in pay related to employee classifications. Workers say the national medical group resisted requests for more staffing during busy hours.
Emergency staff have been drowning in work since USACS stripped the physician team to a skeleton crew, a nurse with more than 10 years of experience at VMC told San José Spotlight. Doctors also routinely stay hours after their shifts to help fill the gaps in service, workers said.
“We’re just getting hammered,” the nurse said. “We’re bursting at the seams.”
A doctor who spoke to San José Spotlight on condition of anonymity said physicians who switch from being a contractor to USACS’ employee saw their salary cut by 15%. New doctors hired by USACS will get the same reduced rate, and emergency physicians at VMC are already the lowest paid emergency doctors in the Bay Area. Doctors can’t take sick days, even if they’re exposed to COVID, because there’s no one on call that could cover a shift, they said. Sources say the ER is currently being run by two physicians daily.
The consistently low staffing levels and poor working conditions have led to an exodus of doctors, workers at the center told San José Spotlight. The revolving door has left the department in a constant state of instability.
“This is not an environment that you should be hiring new people all the time,” the nurse said, adding even highly experienced doctors need time to be onboarded and become familiar with the complicated hospital system. “You can’t have an (emergency department) where everyday you come (and) it’s a new doctor.”
Emergency workers told San José Spotlight USACS also abruptly removed department head Dr. Jeffrey Chien from his position two weeks ago, after he advocated for the company to reinstate physicians’ pay levels and add more doctors during busy shifts. The removal has sent the department into chaos, the doctor who spoke on condition of anonymity said.
“His firing sparked a flame,” the doctor said, adding Dr. Chien was an avid advocate for patients and other workers at the hospital. “Firing him abruptly during one of the biggest COVID surges we’ve seen is just truly mismanagement and concerning.”
As Santa Clara County experiences the largest COVID infections surge since the pandemic began, the need for emergency medical care has skyrocketed at the county’s hospitals. Despite being well-resourced, the emergency rooms at the Valley Medical Center have not been able to keep up with the community’s needs.
“Sometimes we have over 40 patients in our waiting room,” the nurse said, adding that doesn’t include residents who swamp the ER for COVID tests. “We have people tailgating. Can you believe that? That is not okay.”
Because physicians are contracted with USACS, there’s little the county can do, health care workers said. But emergency doctors at the Valley Medical Center are pushing for the county to cut ties with USACS, whose contract is set to expired Feb. 6.
“USACS has not had the best interest of the county in mind,” the doctor said. “And it really has come at the expense of patient care.”
Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.