Patients, supporters of Chase Brexton protest firings of workers

More than 100 Chase Brexton patients, supporters rally against employee firings

More than 100 people rallied outside the Mount Vernon headquarters of Chase Brexton Health Care Friday to protest the recent firings of five employees and draw attention to what they say has been a decline in the quality of care provided.

The rally comes after the firings that some employees and others allege are a part of a growing labor dispute between management and workers trying to unionize. The union seeking to represent Chase Brexton employees filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board last week claiming that the five employees were fired to intimidate other workers and dissuade them from voting to join the union.

The protest rally was organized by the Baltimore Transgender Alliance, which represents area transgender people, and 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. Chase Brexton has a large base of patients from the LGBT community. It also serves low-income people.

"They had been kind of conveyor-belting the system of care already, and then they fired workers who understood how to care for us," said Ava Pipitone, executive director of the alliance and a Chase Brexton patient.

"They are trying to make health care more cost-effective, but they are marginalizing their community," she said. 'They are not repairing relations, as they claim they want to do."

The center, which has clinics throughout the area, opened in 1978 as a place for gay men with HIV but now serves a wider population that includes transgender, bisexual and Medicaid patients.

Last week, Chase Brexton abruptly fired a nurse practitioner, a nurse manager, and three behavioral health managers, many of them longtime employees, during the union organizing campaign. More than 1,500 people have signed an online petition asking that the employees be reinstated.

Chase Brexton officials responded to the complaints by saying the health care landscape has been changing and the center is trying to ensure long-term viability.

In a statement Friday, Chase Brexton said it has appointed a president of operations responsible for "establishing and optimizing operations for the organization." The statement said officials will form a committee of board members, employees, and providers to look at workplace issues. The company will strive to "provide compassionate, quality health care that honors diversity and inclusion, inspires wellness and improves our communities," the statement said.

The company's pronouncements did not pacify the protesters who held signs that said "Workers Rights = Patient Care," "Patient Care Matters" and "Support Queer Patients." They called for the fired workers to be reinstated and allowed to provide care as they see fit.

Monica Yorkman, 63, a Chase Brexton patient since 2003, said the center has been "feeling more corporate" since Chase Brexton brought on Richard Larison as president and CEO in 2012.

The center's employees helped patients going through gender transitions with an array of needs, such as getting new identification that reflects their new gender, navigating their health insurance and managing their health needs. The health care providers also seamlessly managed both chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease and new health needs such as hormone treatments, she said.

"I don't know where else we can go," Yorkman said. "But they are losing their identity."

Protesters assembled on the sidewalk outside the center on Charles and Chase streets said they took care not to block traffic or the entrance, but wanted to have their voices heard.

They found support from 15 members of Baltimore's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly, who sent a letter to Larison on Friday criticizing the firings, which they linked to the upcoming unionization vote Aug. 25.

"It is the sentiment of this delegation that employer interference with employees' right to determine whether to form a union is unacceptable," the letter states. "Retaliatory terminations are a form of employee intimidation and have a chilling effect on employees who may wish to exercise their right to collectively bargain."

The letter said the move is "particularly disappointing" because of Chase Brexton's "historic commitment" to the well being of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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