A patient-care technician for the University of Maryland Medical System must update his skills regularly to keep his job, but he hasn't seen an update in his salary. Another UMMS technician must work at least two jobs to have any money left after paying basic living expenses. And a third caregiver, who has worked for the medical system for several years, can barely afford care for his family at the very hospital where he cares for others.
For UMMS caregivers, is this situation fair, decent or moral? As more Marylanders sign up to receive health care under the Affordable Care Act known as "Obamacare," UMMS needs to offer decent wages and benefits to frontline caregivers so that hospitals can retain the best qualified staff. UMMS executives should be using taxpayer resources responsibly to ensure the highest quality patient care and good jobs for the frontline workers who provide that care.
These executives, however, are being the opposite of responsible. The system, which receives 59 percent of its funding from our tax dollars, has a more than $145-million debt resulting from a complex financial scheme related to interest rates that UMMS Chief Executive Officer Robert Chrencik executed when he was CFO. Despite questions from regulators and analysts about its debt, UMMS is steadily expanding, hiring high-paid executives and paying them big bonuses on top of their salaries.
It would take a full-time nurse's aide or patient care tech more than 50 years to earn the $2.3 million that Mr. Chrencik took home last year. Between 2008 and 2012, when working families across our state were struggling, pay jumped 75 percent for the top four UMMS executives, who collectively received more than $21 million during that time. And that's not including perks like exclusive health club memberships, each worth thousands of dollars.
The issues at stake at UMMS are the same issues at stake nationally. An ethos has developed in this country in which executives, even those of taxpayer supported non-profits, are lavished with high pay, perks and bonuses while their employees struggle to make ends meet, and risky financial schemes by CEOs are given a pass. Will we continue to live in a society where executives can squander taxpayer dollars at will?
Baltimore is hit particularly hard when financial resources that could be used for patient care are diverted elsewhere. One in five jobs in the city is in health care, the city has its share of an aging population and low-wage earners here pay a much larger portion of their incomes for housing, utilities and food than comparable cities. So it is vital that UMMS executives allocate resources in a responsible manner.
Sadly, it is difficult for UMMS workers to raise concerns and make their voices heard around issues such as wages, benefits, respect, training and safe staffing levels. Caregivers at the University of Maryland Medical Center here in Baltimore, the flagship hospital of UMMS, don't even have the same basic labor protections available at every other hospital in the state. When UMMC workers had an opportunity to vote to join a union last year, they were met with threats, harassment, suspension and even termination. UMMC management spread false and damaging information to workers at mandatory meetings, giving workers the impression that their vote would not be confidential.
The nurses and caregivers of 1199SEIU have a mission to provide the highest quality care to patients, including our patients at UMMS hospitals. Our mission also extends beyond the bedside. We are an industry watchdog, working to make sure resources are used wisely. We want financial accountability and transparency on financial dealings, executive compensation, capital improvements and the allocation of tax dollars at UMMS. And we want every dollar prioritized for quality patient care, versus gambling it away, laying off workers or short-changing hardworking Marylanders.
John Reid is executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East for the Maryland and Washington, D.C. Region. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
To respond to this commentary, send an email to email@example.com. Please include your name and contact information.