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Duke Health affiliate faces official complaint that alleges that it threatened its employees

The National Labor Relations Board has recently issued a complaint against a hospital run by Duke LifePoint, a joint venture between the Duke University Health System and health care firm LifePoint Health.

According to the NLRB Complaint, a supervisor at the collaboration’s Upper Peninsula Health System-Marquette hospital in Michigan threatened employees in October with adverse consequences for engaging in strike activity. These alleged threats include informing an employee that her union activity violated the hospital’s Communication and Conflict Resolution standards, asking employees to quit and negatively rating employees’ work performance due to union activity. 

In October, nurses at the hospital engaged in a 48-hour strike because the hospital allegedly refused to guarantee adequate nurse staffing levels to protect patient safety. 

“From the beginning, management has failed to plan for and ensure long-term, consistent RN safe staffing,” said Scott Balko, a member of the Michigan Nurses Association Board of Directors and president of the UPHS-Marquette Registered Nurse Staff Council, at the time. “Patients deserve better.”

The only specific remedy the complaint asks for is that UPHS-Marquette reverse a negative performance review for a specific employee, though it does seek “all other relief as may be just and proper to remedy the unfair labor practices alleged.” The hospital must respond by April 6, 2018, and a hearing will take place July 24, 2018. 

In August 2017, the Michigan Nurses Association released a presentation detailing allegedly poor conditions for nurses at the hospital that affected patient care. The allegations included short-staffing of nurses and a lack of equipment, resulting in cases of patient falls and medicine being given late. However, according to a local report, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found the hospital met all applicable health and safety standards last October. 

"In September, UPHS–Marquette was surveyed during an unannounced visit by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on behalf of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in response to claims made related to staffing and quality at the hospital,” a hospital statement said at the time. “Late last week, we received the official findings of that survey and we are very pleased to report that the surveying authorities found zero deficiencies at our hospital.”

The NLRB complaint does not mention any of the issues described in the MNA’s August complaint. It does not name Duke University, just Duke LifePoint’s Marquette hospital. 

Per a Duke webpage, the Duke Quality Network “connects Duke LifePoint hospitals to the quality and patient safety resources of Duke Medicine through a proven model focused on leadership, performance improvement and a culture of safety.” It adds that there are “collegial peer relationships” among Duke and LifePoint providers, staff and administrators.

According to Modern Healthcare in 2013, DUHS receives a three percent interest in the equity of each new hospital acquired. At the time, William Fulkerson, executive vice president of DUHS, said Duke was committed to the endeavor.

“The main concern is not about diluting the brand, but about scaling our product,” he said. “Our name is more important than just about anything else. That's our commitment—that you're getting Duke.”

Sarah Avery, director of the Duke Health News Office, directed The Chronicle to a statement from UPHS-Marquette in response to the recent complaints. 

Victor Harrington, regional director for marketing and business development for the UP-Health System, wrote that the hospital will defend its actions to the NLRB. 

“We were gratified to recently learn that the NLRB has found no merit to at least nine of the twelve charges filed by the Union. With respect to the remaining three allegations on which the NLRB has formalized a complaint, it is important to note that the complaint and notice of hearing is not a determination,” the response states. “UPHS–Marquette looks forward to the opportunity to fully present its evidence during an NLRB hearing.”

He added that, after reviewing the facts, the hospital has concluded there was no wrongdoing.

“The remaining allegations at issue are related, essentially, to two independent conversations between managers and staff on the eve of the strike, and a job performance evaluation issued to a single employee approximately one month later,” Harrington wrote. “After carefully reviewing the facts available, UPHS–Marquette does not believe that any wrongdoing occurred in those instances. Accordingly, we will vigorously defend the managers in question and the hospital in this NLRB proceeding.”

Lastly, Harrington wrote that the hospital is working to reach a satisfactory union contract with the MNA.

"Please rest assured that UPHS-Marquette continues to work in good faith at the bargaining table in an effort to reach a mutually acceptable labor agreement with the MNA," the statement concluded. 

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