Former employees of Chase Brexton respond to being fired. (Video by Caitlin Faw)
Some Baltimore elected officials are expressing concern about the firing of five workers from Chase Brexton Health Care during a labor dispute, saying they are worried the dismissals threaten the well-being of hundreds of vulnerable patients.
"Many of the patients are upset — they no longer have that person that delivered care to them, that they had a trusting relationship with," said Del. Maggie McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee in Annapolis. "Any time you have a change in caregivers it is going to affect care," she said.
Del. Mary Washington said she, too, has heard from constituents who are patients at the clinics, which have long served the region's gay community. "Dismissing that many caregivers absolutely has an impact on the care of those patients," she said.
"One day you have a therapist who understands you, the next day you don't," said Washington, also a Baltimore Democrat. "A number of them have had negative experiences because of their gender identity .... They were finally being treated in a place that is affirming to whom they are."
Last week, Chase Brexton abruptly fired a nurse practitioner, a nurse manager, and three therapists — two of whom had worked at the clinics for more than 20 years — during an organizing campaign by workers to form a union. The firings have prompted outrage from patients and others. More than 1,300 people have signed an online petition asking that the employees be reinstated.
A rally to protest the firings is planned outside the Mount Vernon clinic at 4 p.m. Friday.
In interviews with The Baltimore Sun, the five said they were called in to the CEO's office without notice and told they were being dismissed. They said the union campaign was not mentioned, but two said they were told the company had lost confidence in their "leadership."
The workers expressed dismay at leaving their patients. Jill Crank, a nurse practitioner who served as assistant medical director, said she worries her more than 600 patients will think she just abandoned them.
The firings prompted leaders with 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board accusing Chase Brexton of using the firings to intimidate doctors and medical staff seeking to organize. A vote is set for Aug. 25.
Asked for comment on the criticisms, Chase Brexton issued a statement Thursday saying the nonprofit has been undergoing "a period of rapid change to ensure our long-term viability." It said executives might not have communicated well and now want to reestablish trust with employees, providers and patients.
"We do not believe SEIU is the right long-term solution for Chase Brexton," the statement said. "Union representation will have unintended consequences for our employees, providers, patients and the community we serve. We are confident that our management, working collaboratively with our employees and providers, can together best position Chase Brexton for the future."
The health center, headquartered in Mount Vernon but with clinics throughout the area, started in 1978 as a place for gay men with HIV. It now servers a wider population, including transgender, bisexual and Medicaid patients. Chase Brexton served nearly 10,000 Medicaid recipients last year, according to the state health department.
The five fired employees told The Sun they were stunned when they were brought into CEO Richard Larison's office and told they were losing their jobs before being immediately escorted out of the building. All said they had recently received good evaluations and pay raises and had never been told there was a problem with their work.
They were upset they couldn't reach out to their patients to tell them why they were no longer there.
Bethany Henderson, who was program manager for the LGBT Health Resource Center at Chase Brexton, was involved in putting together programs for older LGBT adults, who often live in isolation, and a younger population often dealing with self-acceptance. She said she worries what will happen to the programs and the patients they serve.
"I could do another job somewhere else, but I don't want to," she said. "Chase Brexton is a family."
The other fired workers are Warren Conner, Catherine Fowler and Ken Ruby.
Delegate McIntosh said it appears that Chase Brexton was trying to influence the coming union election. She said officials "need to justify why they would fire people for what seems to be one reason —their attempt to organize."
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Del. Cory V. McCray, a Baltimore Democrat, said he is among elected officials who have signed a letter to be presented to Chase Brexton executives Friday expressing concern about the firings. City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he plans to work with the Baltimore delegation to address the concerns.
Patients have decried the firings on social media, including on Facebook and through the online petition on the website Change.org. Several advocacy groups representing the concerns of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have issued a statement denouncing the firings, and The Pride Foundation of Maryland, which promotes LGBT interests, removed the company's health centers from the foundation's list of safe spaces.
Kelly Valdez, 45, of Baltimore, began seeing Crank in 2007. As a lesbian, she said, she often felt judged by doctors but felt understood by Crank. She will now see another doctor at Chase Brexton because she believes in its mission, but says she is upset by the firings.
"The firing of these five people is really anti the Chase Brexton Message," Valdez said." I would really love to see the board of directors take the blinders off and really see the decision that was made to fire these people was really bad and traumatic to the community."