San Jose doctors delay strike amid agreement
Dr. Rachel Ruiz at a Valley Physician Group rally on Oct. 19. She said union members want Santa Clara County to treat doctors with respect and improve working conditions. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    After more than two years of negotiating, Santa Clara County and its doctors have reached a pending agreement on a new contract, averting a strike scheduled to start in November.

    County Executive Jeff Smith said the county and Valley Physicians Group, a union representing more than 450 doctors in the Santa Clara County health system, met for three days last week to hash out the contract over untenable working conditions.

    “We ended up with a fair and equitable and sustainable agreement,” Smith told San José Spotlight. “It’s troublesome that it took so long to get here. There are a lot of reasons for that, but at least we’re done at this point. There’s no strike and no damage to patient care.”

    Union members still need to vote on the tentative contract. Smith hopes to present it to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in November.

    Dr. Steve Harris, president of Valley Physicians Group, said ultimately the county agreed physician workload and wellness have an important impact on the care provided to patients.

    “As we all work on these systemic problems, we hope our last-minute agreement to avert the strike, along with previously agreed upon improvements in salary, will boost physician morale, stabilize the workforce, and enhance our ability to recruit more great physicians and retain the ones we’ve got,” Harris told San José Spotlight.

    The agreement arrives days before county doctors were set to go on a strike that would close down most non-emergency and outpatient services at Santa Clara County hospitals and clinics, including the anchor facility at Santa Clara County Valley Medical Center (VMC). VMC serves some of the most vulnerable patients in Silicon Valley.

    County doctors have been working without a contract for more than a year.

    Valley Physicians Group and Santa Clara County already agreed an a $726 million five-year contract earlier last month, Smith said. The county has also agreed to cut back on the number of patients primary care physicians have to see for two years, hire more support staff and allow doctors more time for administrative tasks, among other things.

    County doctors have sounded the alarm on ongoing worker shortages, outdated equipment and dismissive leadership for months. Primary care physicians said yearslong problems such as increased workloads and decreased staffing make their jobs impossible. Without support staff, they have to work after their shifts and on their days off to keep up. Specialists, such as those in radiology, are at wits’ end with substandard equipment and a backlog of hundreds of patients who spend months waiting for basic, non-invasive scans such as MRIs and CTs.

    A recent survey conducted by the union shows roughly two-thirds of county-employed doctors don’t plan to stay at VMC. Three out of five physicians who contemplate leaving cite not being respected by county management as the reason. More than 70% of doctors said they feel worse about their jobs compared to last year.

    “I would just like to emphasize that we have great doctors, great nurses, great hospitals and high quality care,” Smith said. “All of the frustration that’s been expressed is really more related to workload and COVID and the stresses in society, but they’re great people and they’ll bounce back.”

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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