Meredith Zoltick, a registered nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital, speaks at a "Rally for the Rights of RNs and Patients," sponsored by the AFL-CIO, National Nurses United and the Coalition for a Humane Hopkins. Attendees support the efforts of nurses to unionize and spoke out against the hospital's practice of collecting medical debt from former patients.
Meredith Zoltick, a registered nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital, speaks at a "Rally for the Rights of RNs and Patients," sponsored by the AFL-CIO, National Nurses United and the Coalition for a Humane Hopkins. Attendees support the efforts of nurses to unionize and spoke out against the hospital's practice of collecting medical debt from former patients. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Joined by members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, national union leaders staged a noisy — and musical — rally Saturday calling on Johns Hopkins Hospital to stop suing low-income patients to collect debt.

A crowd of a few hundred chanted “Shame!” and some people waved signs reading “Hey Hopkins. Stop Suing Patients & Families.”

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The rally — held on a sweltering afternoon outside the hospital — also promoted the efforts of a group of Hopkins nurses to unionize.

“It may be 100 degrees out there, but we’re just getting started,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka shouted from an outdoor stage. “Nurses are the most trusted public servants in our nation, and they deserve a voice on the job.”

Hopkins nurses are in the midst of a contentious campaign to unionize. Officials of National Nurses United — the union the Hopkins group is seeking to join — were represented at the rally.

Joining the union officials were a handful of musicians from the symphony orchestra, who played a few songs. A hip-hop artist also performed.

The orchestra musicians are in a labor dispute of their own. On May 30, the symphony abruptly canceled the summer series of concerts it had announced five weeks earlier. On June 17, the organization locked out its 75 performers, with whom it is attempting to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement.

“I am here because the nurses have been so supportive of our cause,” said Gabrielle Finck, who played her French horn with her 15-month-old son strapped to a carrier on her back. “We’ve learned a lot about picketing from them.”

Musicians from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Brass and Baltimore Musicians Union perform at a "Rally for the Rights of RNs and Patients," sponsored by the AFL-CIO, National Nurses United and the Coalition for a Humane Hopkins. Attendees support the efforts of nurses to unionize and spoke out against the hospital's practice of collecting medical debt from former patients.
Musicians from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Brass and Baltimore Musicians Union perform at a "Rally for the Rights of RNs and Patients," sponsored by the AFL-CIO, National Nurses United and the Coalition for a Humane Hopkins. Attendees support the efforts of nurses to unionize and spoke out against the hospital's practice of collecting medical debt from former patients. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Corey Lanham, a regional collective bargaining director for National Nurses United, said in an interview that hospital management has sought to block nurses’ organizing efforts, including “preventing nurses from talking to other nurses (and) preventing nurses from going to other units on their off time.”

About 3,200 nurses would be eligible to unionize.

“In Maryland we’ve got a tradition of supporting working men and women,” said U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown, a Democrat who represents parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties. He said he attended the rally to support the nurses.

In an email on Saturday to Johns Hopkins Medicine employees, top administrators wrote that Johns Hopkins “fully supports the rights of our nurses to organize.”

The email also said National Nurses United “has sought to undermine the hospital’s standing in our community by publicizing misleading and unfair accusations about our hospital’s medical debt collection practices.”

The message was signed by Johns Hopkins Medicine CEO Paul B. Rothman and Kevin Sowers, president of the Hopkins Health System.

The Sun reported in May that Johns Hopkins Hospital has filed more than 2,400 lawsuits in Maryland courts since 2009 against patients with unpaid bills, including a large number of residents from distressed neighborhoods surrounding the East Baltimore medical campus.

Kim Hoppe, a spokesperson for Johns Hopkins Medicine, said Saturday that patients receive "more than a dozen contacts via mail or phone call along with multiple opportunities to file for medical or financial hardship."

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She said the communications include offers of financial counseling and assistance, and that the court system is tapped "only after all contact points have been exhausted and a patient has declined to respond or engage."

Meredith Zoltick, a registered nurse who attended the rally, said the issues of debt collection and unionizing are linked.

“They are absolutely connected,” she said. “For me as a nurse, my role does not end at the bedside. It goes on after a patient is discharged.”

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