‘It’s Not a Lack of Ability — It’s an Absolute Lack of Will’: Why HCA Workers Are Demanding Better Staffing

More and more healthcare workers are challenging their employers’ responses to the industry’s widespread clinician burnout crisis and sweeping workforce shortage. For example, nurses from Kaiser Permanente and Stanford Medical Center had success last year — both groups were able to negotiate pay raises and provisions for better staffing.

Workers at the largest for-profit health system in the country, HCA Healthcare, have an effort of their own planned for Thursday. About 300 employees will rally at HCA’s hospital in West Hills, California to call attention to the dire staffing levels at the health system’s more than 150 hospitals across 19 states.

Understaffing causes harm not only to the wellbeing of healthcare workers, but also patients, said Rosanna Mendez, executive director of SEIU Local 121RN, a nurses union in California. It’s not uncommon for a patient to fall out of their bed at an HCA hospital because there isn’t a nurse available to help them get to the bathroom, she said. Patients also often have to wait much longer than they should to receive their medication because nurses aren’t available to administer it, Mendez explained.

She claimed that her union’s members ”have done everything possible to get HCA to do the right thing.” For example, 1,200 nurses at HCA’s Riverside Community Hospital went on a 10-day strike in 2020 to demand improvement for understaffing. Members of the union have also filed objection forms at their hospitals and worked with labor management committees to try and address the issue, Mendez said.

“Honestly, they just tried so many different things, and they’ve reached a breaking point because they are not being heard. HCA takes what they say, and it goes in one ear and out the other,” she said. “At the end of the day, this is causing a huge moral, psychological and emotional injury on the nurses. They go home in tears because they are not able to provide the care that they want to be able to provide.” 

HCA’s healthcare workers are especially frustrated with their employer because of how much money the company makes, Mendez pointed out. In 2021, HCA generated a revenue of $58 billion, with $7 billion in profits. The health system handed out $8 billion in stock buybacks to its shareholders. 

HCA is in “more than healthy position” to be able to alleviate the severe understaffing that is impacting nurses and patients, Mendez said. The goal of Thursday’s rally is to show HCA that its workers know how profitable the company is and that they won’t be able to tolerate their working conditions for much longer, she declared. 

“It’s not a lack of ability — it’s an absolute lack of will. Because it’s so profitable, HCA has the ability to pay workers, retain them and recruit workers to help with the staffing situation. They’re making a conscious decision to understaff and therefore to not provide the patient care that patients deserve,” Mendez said.

HCA healthcare workers are traveling from multiple states to attend the rally, including Nevada, Texas, Florida and Kansas.

If HCA does not demonstrate that it’s taking action to address its workers’ concerns after the rally, Mendez said “there is a very strong possibility” that workers will go on strike.

In a statement HCA sent to MedCity, the health system said the rally is “an expected tactic as we are set to begin our regular cycle of bargaining with the labor union in the next few weeks.”

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