Striking SEIU workers intentionally endangered Conn. nursing home patients, says company

Vince Coglianese Editorial Director
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After the collapse of 17-month-long union negotiations on July 3, unionized health-care workers walked out of five nursing home facilities in Connecticut, but not before placing some elderly patients in dire medical risk through acts of sabotage, according to the company that owns and operates the facilities.

“In the hours leading up to the strike by the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199 SEIU (the Union) against five HealthBridge Management Health Care Centers in Connecticut, Union members engaged in multiple illegal and dangerous acts against Center residents,” reads a statement released by HealthBridge on Tuesday afternoon.

According to police reports obtained by The Daily Caller and reported Monday by the RedState blog, HealthBridge Management Health Care Centers alleged that union employees in at least three of its facilities intentionally mixed up or removed patient name plates, photos, medical bracelets and dietary advisories as they began their strike. Additionally, the police reports include allegations of both vandalism and larceny.

A July 3 police report from the Danbury Health Care Center in Danbury, Conn., states that “between the hours of 2300 [11:00 pm] on 7/2/12 and 0700 [7:00 am]  today, 7/3/12, there were several incidents that directly affected and potentially could have negatively impacted patient care.”

“The incidents ranged from clean linens being thrown on the floor to more serious incidents whereby patients’ identification wrist bands were removed as well as patient identifiers on room doors and wheelchairs.”

“There are no suspects,” the report continues, but “the persons involved are presumed to be employees who are part of a protest taking place outside outside against the Danbury Health Care Center.”

At the Newington Health Care Center, in Newington, Conn., police reported that “several items were discovered missing,” including six handles used to operate patient lifts for individuals with mobility problems. Several stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs were also reported missing.

The police report states that “prior to the employee labor strike … the name tags on the patient’s doors for the Alzheimer’s ward were mixed up. The photos attached to the medical records for these patients were removed further complicating, but not making impossible the identification of the patients.”

“Also, dietary blue stickers affixed to the door name tags were removed,” the report continued. A source with knowledge of HealthBridge’s operations told TheDC that those stickers identify residents that have dysphagia, or trouble swallowing. Those patients have special dietary restrictions to prevent them from choking.

In Stamford, Conn., a police report showed that the glass door on an industrial front-loading washing machine was smashed in at the Long Ridge of Stamford facility.

Reached for comment about the allegations and incidents, District 1199 SEIU spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff said she was unaware of any union employee being involved.

“There’s been no investigation that I’m aware of,” Chernoff told TheDC. “We don’t know anything about them other than what’s been posted on RedState.”

“If there’s anything to these reports, we expect them to be investigated by proper authorities,” she continued. “But we don’t know that there’s any substance to them [the allegations]. We have no reason to think so, other than what comes out of HealthBridge, and they have no credibility with us.”

HealthBridge’s Tuesday statement claims that when it reached out to the office of state Attorney General George Jepsen, a Democrat, they were turned away and told to speak with local law enforcement.

Jepsen’s longstanding relationship with SEIU has had a compromising effect on his discretion in the case.

On Monday and Tuesday, Jepsen joined the SEIU picket lines outside each of the five nursing homes operated by HealthBridge, to show “support for striking health care workers … [who] began strikes on July 3 over unfair labor practices after the company ended negotiations,” according to a media advisory on Jepsen’s official website.

Additionally, SEIU endorsed Jepsen in his 2010 campaign for the attorney general’s office. “Having the support of so many state employees will help me in my job as attorney general,” Jepsen said in 2010.

“Since the Attorney General has compromised his impartiality in this matter, we also call upon the Governor to appoint an independent Special Counsel to investigate the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199 for what appears to be their involvement in these serious incidents,” HealthBridge’s statement added.

The attorney general’s office pushed back against that statement immediately Tuesday afternoon, but admitted the attorney general had a conflict of interest, saying he would be recusing himself from the “legal matters” involved with the case.

“There is no need for appointment of a special counsel,” said Susan Kinsman, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jepson, in a statement to TheDC. “The Department of Public Health is the agency with authority to investigate adverse events at nursing homes. Healthbridge told the Office of the Attorney General that it was making a report to DPH. DPH confirmed with the OAG that it was aware of the reports and was looking into them.”

“The Attorney General has a responsibility to represent the broader public interest and his participation today [in the SEIU picket line] was aimed at drawing attention to important issues in hopes of expediting resolution of the conflict,” continued Kinsman. “Because Attorney General Jepsen has walked the picket line, he has recused himself from any legal matters involving Healthbridge and SEIU. The Office of the Attorney General, however, continues to serve as counsel to the Department of Public Health. If the agency’s investigation results in a request for legal assistance, the office is certainly prepared to provide it.”

HealthBridge told TheDC in response that prior to that statement, the company was unaware of the attorney general ever claiming he had recused himself.

“I believe that the office of the attorney general should be looking out for the well-being and safety of our residents,” Lisa Crutchfield, a spokeswoman for HealthBridge told TheDC when asked why the company was seeking the attorney general’s involvement.

“The union and the employees that are out on strike clearly put their own self-interest ahead of the safety of our residents,” Crutchfield said, “and we thought it is a matter that the state’s attorney general should pick up.”

If Jepsen’s conflict is keeping his office from opening an investigation, Connecticut’s governor might also be of little help in appointing a special counsel.

Connecticut Gov. Dannell Malloy, a Democrat, also walked the picket line with SEIU workers last week and criticized HealthBridge’s failure to reach an agreement with the union. “They’re trying to break the union, and we don’t want that to happen,” he told the striking workers.

A strikingly similar scenario has played out at least once before between Connecticut nursing homes and SEIU workers.

In 2001, District 1199 SEIU was again accused of sabotaging nursing home patients in the lead up to a worker strike.

The Hartford Courant reported at the time that Connecticut Chief State’s Attorney John Bailey “concluded in a damning report that many of the alleged incidents not only occurred but also were criminal.”:

“There is no doubt while some of the acts in question are crimes of nuisance and mischief, others could have had an effect resulting in seriously jeopardizing the [nursing home] residents’ health and safety,” the prosecutor’s report said.

Mr. Bailey’s investigators looked at evidence and information reported by 10 homes and found that equipment and sterile medical supplies had been tampered with, patient identification bracelets were removed, drugs were missing and a door to a supply room containing oxygen had been glued shut.

The removal of identification bracelets from patients apparently was the most pervasive act of sabotage — and could have had the most dangerous consequences because replacement workers would not know the patients. The bracelets are key to ensuring that patients get the right food and medicine.

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