Health care heroes deserve support

Let’s treat better those who have risked their health for ours 

THEY’VE BEEN RIGHTFULLY hailed as heroes on homemade signs and honored with Blue Angel flyovers, but the same health care workers who are saving untold lives during the COVID crisis – and risking their own – are now being eyed for layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts or freezes. Is this how we treat heroes?

There is no doubt that the pandemic has cost Massachusetts hospitals and health centers hundreds of millions of dollars. Elective procedures were paused for months, so that staff and rooms were reserved for those fighting for their lives against COVID, and to protect other potential patients from exposure to the virus. As care was postponed or canceled, commercial health insurers reaped the economic benefit with no commitment to pass along the savings to struggling providers.

Now, at hospitals and health centers across Massachusetts, there is a growing concern that owners and employers will seek to balance their budgets on the backs of the workforce – the very same people who selflessly cared for patients, and often battled the virus themselves. There ought to be widespread public recognition that this is not how our health care institutions should be fixing a temporary fiscal shortfall.

First, the patients who put off care have not disappeared and neither have their health care needs. Hospitals are already starting to see the return of patients who have postponed care. And those patients should be assured that the hospitals they return to are properly staffed by a care team they have always relied upon, not by a skeleton team already battered and stressed by the long hours demanded by the pandemic.

Second, workers have already sacrificed, and continue to. Health care workers at facilities across the state took furloughs, reassignments to new and unfamiliar roles, and even pay cuts to ensure the health care system was prepared for the surge. They were asked to re-use personal protective equipment or use decontaminated masks, risking their own personal health to help others. Health care workers were even cut out of vital protections from the CARES Act by the US Department of Labor. This workforce needs to be supported, not asked to continue to sacrifice.

We must heed the lessons we’ve learned from the past four months. The way we treat, pay and protect our most vulnerable health care workers must fundamentally change.

The 70,000 members of 1199SEIU – a majority of them brown or black, many of them new Americans, virtually all of them hourly workers – have been on the front line of the crisis in hospitals, health centers, consumers’ homes, and nursing homes. If you or a loved one was stricken with coronavirus, it’s likely that at some point an 1199SEIU member provided care – far too often at their own unnecessary personal risk.

Across the spectrum, inadequate pay for workers created situations that worsened this crisis. These are hourly workers who rely on their jobs to support their families and put food on the table. Not going to work is simply not an option for most. No guarantees have been made to support them should they determine going to work is no longer safe or even if they become infected themselves.

There are solutions. At the federal level, the HEROES Act was passed in the House in May to lift up health care workers and provide the protection they need. Senate Republicans have refused to take action even as COVID-19 continues to sweep unabated across the country.

As Republicans and the Trump administration attempt to ignore the impact of COVID-19, state government can and must do more. Fair and equitable health care financing that supports our community and safety-net hospitals has been a priority for years but has not been adequately addressed. Now is the time for reforms that stabilize and support community and safety-net hospitals and make needed investments in our healthcare system.

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The Commonwealth needs to offer emergency paid sick leave that too many health care workers lack, and eliminate barriers that make it too difficult for healthcare workers to prove work-related COVID exposure.

As we continue to work together on both immediate relief and long-term reform, the first step is clear: We must support and invest in our healthcare workforce and ensure that we are there for them as they have been for us.

Tim Foley is executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.