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With Steward in bankruptcy, union says Palmetto General staff struggles with patient needs

Palmetto General Hospital has faced supply shortages and the closure of its outpatient building in recent years.
Chris Cutro
Miami Herald
Palmetto General Hospital has faced supply shortages and the closure of its outpatient building in recent years.

Union officials say workers at Palmetto General Hospital, one of eight Florida hospitals managed by Steward Health Care, are struggling with broken elevators, late overtime checks and staffing shortages.

Steward Health Care, which runs 31 hospitals nationwide, including eight in Florida, filed for bankruptcy in May and announced that it was selling all of its hospitals.

At the time, the Dallas-based company said it did not expect any interruptions in its hospitals’ day-to-day operations during the Chapter 11 process.

But workers at Palmetto General Hospital — which is managed by Steward — say they are struggling with broken elevators, late overtime checks and staffing shortages.

Mark Criswell, an administrative organizer for Palmetto General and health care worker union 1199SEIU, says the workplace issues have persisted for years. Typically, he noted, there are three to four certified nursing assistants per floor; now there’s only one.

“[Steward] started closing mental health units at their facilities. There weren’t juices; there weren’t snacks for patients,” Criswell said. “There were paper shortages. There was just like little stuff where they were cutting corners.”

Criswell said the problems started in 2021, the same year Steward Health Care bought the hospital. The first major alarm bells rang when Palmetto General’s Behavioral Mental Health unit closed.

The Miami Herald reported that similar closures happened at North Shore Medical Center, which is also run by Steward Health Care.

“Steward Health Care has done everything in its power to operate successfully in a highly challenging health care environment,” Dr. Ralph de la Torre, CEO of Steward, said in a May 6 statement.

The company did not respond to WLRN inquiries about the union's concerns.

Steward Health Care runs two other hospitals in Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Hospital and Hialeah Hospital. It also manages In Florida, Steward also operates Florida Medical Center in Broward; Melbourne Regional Medical Center and Rockledge Regional Medical Center in Brevard; and Sebastian River Medical Center in Indian River.

Steward Health Care bought the five South Florida hospitals from Tenet Healthcare three years ago for $1 billion. It then sold the real estate it owned to Medical Properties Trust, a real estate investment trust that acquires and leases hospitals in the U.S. and around the world, according to the Miami Herald. It then leased the facilities.

In its previous statement, Steward corporate officials reported it is finalizing the terms of “debtor-in-possession financing” from its landlord Medical Properties Trust for initial funding of $75 million and “up to an additional $225 million upon the satisfaction of certain conditions.”

Criswell said the business relationship between the two companies is unclear.

“What does MPT own? Do they own just the land? Or do they own the MRI machines? What was actually sold to MPT? That’s the question that Steward is not being transparent about, and this is the hesitation for anyone in Florida to want to put bids on these hospitals right now,” said Criswell.

Steward Health Care's financial troubles have drawn the attention of Congress.

Last month, a group of Democratic members of Congress sought reassurances that workers at hospitals owned by Steward Health Care would have their health care and retirement benefits protected.

In a June 17 letterto acting Labor Secretary Julie Su, Markey said Steward’s bankruptcy “poses concerns for the nearly 30,000 workers ... who rely on Steward Health Care for their paychecks, health care plans and retirement benefits.”

Steward also manages hospitals in Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.

The lawmakers asked the Labor Department to protect workers, including determining Steward’s plan for continuing benefits during bankruptcy as well as in the event of a facility’s closure or buyout and making sure health claims are paid throughout the bankruptcy process.

"Workers and retirees must be protected from further harm resulting from Steward’s gross financial mismanagement," wrote the lawmakers.

Adding to its financial woes: the company's proposed deal to sell its nationwide physician network to Optum, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, was canceled. The sale was a key part of its strategy to emerge from bankruptcy.

"Our hope too is to make sure that [the] community can receive services, as well as have quality and good-paying jobs," said DeQuasia Canales, vice president of health care worker union 1199SEIU.

Copyright 2024 WLRN Public Media

Anita Li