Back to Basics: Income Equality and Health Care

Before we were so rudely interrupted by evil in national, and in some cases, state politics, before Black people got shot daily, there were calls for income equality. Some people made a gazillion dollars for working and some people didn’t make enough to live on even though they were working. 

I’m good at being angry about basics, so when I talked to a friend this morning about the treatment she’s getting from a Boston hospital she worked at for 30+ years, I got good and angry. I remain so, but it provoked me to write a long-simmering piece about healthcare and the mess it’s in.

The story has 4 pieces now, but they are all the same story: doing away with the actual care at hospitals while their bosses make extraordinary– really extraordinary — money. 

When my mom was alive, she was a director of nurses at HeathSouth in Florida. My mom worked as hard and as decently as  a person could. She mentored her nurses, accepting calls at home about this or that crisis at a facility, and got mad if a nursing home smelled of urine. She thought it was unacceptable to treat people as less that human, regardless of who they were or what shape they were in. Just because a patient didn’t seem to know what was going on around them, if you did, you were supposed to treat them well. 

Suddenly, there were corporate mergers and people trying to save a buck, and the company hired people to “pick off” potential disability claimants and save money. My mother was one of those people– kidney problems all her life, heart problems from stress, and ultimately cancer would claim her. But while she was still working, she or her staff would be written up for really minor infractions and the stress of always being watched for any wrong move finally got her. Without benefits, she’d have to work for insurance, even though her health was declining with every extra hour or shift. Why? So some CEO or stockholder could make more money and say “it’s just business”. My mother was a person, who cared for others. She made the lives of others easier and didn’t get rich doing it. In return for all of that, she was sent adrift while CEOs made more money than they ever had. The stream that was supposed to be “trickle down” was a flood going up instead.

Jump forward a few years and I live near Hartford, CT. I worked as a very part-time chaplain at a hospital for quite a few years. Suddenly there is no chaplain program for people early in recovery or dealing with a severe mental illness for the first time. Why? Budget cuts. It’s no big deal financially for me. I didn’t make a lot of money anyway. But who was going to do the work that I did, taking care of the people I did?  No one. A few months later, they reinstated the position I heard, but through a private donor because people complained. Did the institution care about the people it was supposed to? No. Money came first. 

At the same time, I knew a nurse at the hospital who complained to me about an odd idea. If you go in to the hospital and your blood sugar gets low for whatever reasons, nurses used to have orange juice and little packets of graham crackers at their desk to help you cope. The hospital was in areguements with an insurance company and decided to  remove the “free” orange juice from the area where the nursing staff was as a cost cutting measure. I believe they explained it as “so we won’t have to cut back on staff”. Really? I don’t know how much orange juice costs, but I didn’t think those were really the choices. What staff did they mean? The CEO got a million dollar raise that year. I’m sure his or her contract could cover it. Why wasn’t that considered?

At another hospital in Connecticut, administration also cut the chaplaincy program. I remember that it happened in drips and drabs at first. Then, because the chaplain was support for the nursing staff who we’re being nickel and dimed to death, administration really turned up the heat. The chaplain in question is the best chaplain I know. His departure, and their pressure on him meant that not only were the patients losing someone who cared deeply about them,  but so were the rest of the staff. I’m sure someone saw it as a cost-cutting measure, but the chaplain gave them “more bang for their buck” than that CEO did. Also involved: merger talks and CEO pay raises, just like above. 

Now, today, I hear this: a friend in a Boston hospital has seen her health deteriorate for a while now, but she’s used to being a nurse, and she has been good at it for 30+ years. Her health got worse and worse and the hospital was updating something. The combination of her health and their updating led to her leaving and retiring. Could it be that simple? Nope. The hospital — also cutting corners, also with a well-paid CEO (7 million dollars per year!), decided to mess with her benefits. Other nurses or staff tried to help, but that may or not help, as the hospital fought that. Why? People can’t be kind to each other if money’s involved? People must remain anonymous? I don’t know. It makes no sense.

Here are the similarities: corporate restructuring, loss of jobs or income from caring, hard working people and huge raises for CEOs. This cannot be the best way to do our healthcare. Certainly it’s not the moral thing to do.  Can we change this somehow? I’d like to think so. The wrong people are getting rewarded, the wrong people are losing their income, and the public suffers. 

Will we?  We’ll see.

Resisting with peace, 
John

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