Is Berkshire Health Systems management putting patient safety at risk?

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By Friday, May 19 Letters  3 Comments

To the Editor:

I appreciated the May 17 letter in The Edge by Andrea Harrington of Richmond, in support of Berkshire Medical Center nurses in their current contract negotiations with Berkshire Health Systems, owner of BMC.

I would like to share my perspective as a current patient in a BHS affiliated facility.

The questionable hardball tactics of top BHS administrators in negotiations with the nurses, as reported in page one Berkshire Eagle stories on May 4 and 5, are distasteful to contemplate. BHS’s CEO David Phelps and his crew chose to go public in an accusatory way about negotiations whose details nurses’ union spokesman Joe Markman says are not legally discussable in public.

But this disturbing management behavior should not deflect public attention from the central nursing questions at issue: At what cost in chronic stress and burnout to nurses have BMC’s good patient safety ratings come? How sustainable are these high non-monetary costs? What are the long-term prospects for patient safety, for clinical outcomes, and for premature staff turnover, if the current abundantly documented understaffing is not corrected?

The answers to these questions are of vital interest to all residents of BMC’s catchment area, where all of us are potential hospital patients. BHS management does a disservice to this public interest, and to the market of potential patients to which they so heavily advertise their services, when they blow rhetorical smoke around the contract issues.

As a citizen, I recognize the obvious, difficult circumstantial pressures on BHS leaders in their attempts to balance conflicting responsibilities as stewards of vital public services.

But as a patient, my sympathies tilt toward the BMC nurses. Since late September I have been a rehabilitation patient (for treatment of a slowly healing wound) in a BHS-affiliated nursing home, owned by Berkshire Healthcare, Inc., a sister corporation to BHS. My experience for the past seven months with hands-on caregivers (both nurses and their aides) here at Fairview Commons in Great Barrington has been favorable. I have seen up close their dedicated, often heroic performance of difficult work in a chronically understaffed and underpaid setting.

But their corporate administrators have been rudely and inexcusably uncommunicative with me, when I have repeatedly asked them for help to meet my clinical rehabilitation needs. (I have been paralyzed below the waist by a spinal cord injury for 50 years, and know those needs well.) Their stonewalling posture in response to my repeated oral and written requests for that help and for information directly relevant to my medical needs, has been very frustrating. The manager of my nursing rehab unit, a dedicated and experienced nurse, has had no power to grant those requests or even to respond to them with clear information. For five months his bosses, right up to the top in Pittsfield, have refused to reply in writing to any of my written queries, and in their rare oral responses to me, have made assertions – in true Donald Trumpian fashion – that defy elementary logic and verifiable facts.

In their parallel corporate structure, BHC leaders are peers of the BHS management team. I imagine that, if I were dealing with them for the first time, I’d not enjoy sitting across from them in a contract negotiation. If BHS negotiators share the communication style of BHC leaders, I can empathize with the frustrations that negotiators for the BMC nurses must feel.

I want to say to readers of The Berkshire Edge, and to the state and federal legislators whose decisions provide the lion’s share of the funding of BHS and its corporate affiliate BHC: I urge you to take with a huge grain of salt the aggressive public spin of BHS management about the contract negotiations with BMC nurses. That’s my short-term political prescription for observers in the court of public opinion to which BHS has brought its case.

John Breasted

Great Barrington

John Breasted has lived in Great Barrington for 22 years and has served time as a newspaper reporter and medical student.

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3 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Sharon says:

    In response to the letter from John regarding Bhs and nurses. EVERYONE KNOWS THEY ARE TOP HEAVY! Meaning, the guys at the top ( and there are alot of them) make ridiculously high salaries while always they have had overworked and understaffed nurses. I saw this first hand with my elderly,paralyzed mother. As for great Doctors, one cannot get attached to theirs because before you know it,they are gone! There is.a joke about them “eating them up” no one deserves the money they are getting. How much does one need?we are after all in Berkshire County.
    I know nurses. They are exhausted mentally and physically trying to take care of a floor of patients when they are shorthanded. Patient CARE – GOOD CARE should be number one with BHS

  2. Leilani Hover says:

    Thank you for the responses in favor of the bmc/bhs nurses! With the deluge of bmc rhetoric on the local radio station,in the paper and the endless “updates” given to all bmc employees, as a nurse it’s hard to know if the public understands that we are here fighting for the best possible outcomes for them in an environment that is not always ideal.

  3. John Breasted says:


    Two pieces of information related to the BMC nursing contract negotiations, that may interest Berkshire Edge readers:

    1) After I offered my view of this matter to The Berkshire Eagle as a letter or op-ed piece, their reporter whose page one May 4 story had aired BHS’s aggressive comments about the negotiations, replied to me on May 15 that her editors had “decided not to publish it. The paper is unable to verify the concerns that you have raised, which would make it inappropriate to run them.”

    I replied: “Since when do concerns expressed in an opinion piece submitted to a newspaper need to be ‘verified’? The op-ed page or the letters section of a newspaper is (or should be) an open forum… if your editors printed my piece and if BHS management wished to dispute what I wrote, the latter could write a rebuttal to the paper, and readers could decide for themselves on the merits of our respective arguments.”

    I suggested to her and to her editors that the BMC nursing contract negotiations are only part of a much larger story: the increasing commercialization and corporatization of medical care in western Massachusetts and southwestern Vermont in recent years. This larger story is worthy of a well-researched series of investigative articles by the Eagle’s expanded reporting staff. I hope that its editors and the new owners will rise to that challenge.

    2) Since May 4 BHS negotiators and their spokesman seem to have refrained from further aggressive public spin on the negotiations. Meanwhile, there are important negotiation-related questions that are ripe for exploration in well-sourced stories, beyond the usual who-said-what-yesterday mode that too often passes for journalism in America.

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