A public hearing Tuesday on the sale of Quincy Medical Center to Steward Health Care turned into an unexpected labor dispute between members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association and the prospective buyer.
The meeting, held at Quincy High School, was a requirement by the state Attorney General Martha Coakley and is customary for any non-profit entity - especially a hospital - that wishes to sell to a for-profit company. The entire $35 million acquisition needs to be reviewed by the AG's office prior to the purchase.
Although initially the meeting was to receive public input about the merger, dozens of representatives from the association attended, wishing to speak up about pension disputes within the Steward family.
According to nurses and union officials, Steward went back on the terms of a pension plan negotiated with the nurses of Caritas Christi hospital, which was purchased by Steward last year.
Although both sides reached an agreement in October 2010 after the Caritas deal was complete, union officials felt the plan offered to them in the last few weeks did not reflect the initial settlement.
According to David Schildmeier, director of public communications for the MNA, the new plan redefined the five-year agreement for a multiemployer defined-benefit plan, changing the initial contribution and also altered the pension’s ability to grow.
“They have reneged on their deal,” Schildmeier said.
As a result of the dispute, both sides will move to arbitration in September.
Additionally, the association asked the attorney general to delay approvals of Steward’s purchase of Quincy Medical Center and Morton Hospital in Taunton until the issue is resolved.
“We support the sale. Everybody that testified is in strong support of the sale,” Schildmeier said. “The issue is, and what was referred to by the nurses who testified that work for Steward, is we’re using this opportunity to call upon the attorney general to do her due diligence … that includes a call to Steward to adhere to the agreements they make.”
It was a move that angered Steward officials, said Chris Murphy, a spokesman for Steward, especially as the QMC transaction is following a strict timeline.
“The process is going along, as it always does…but for some reason, the MNA has petitioned state officials to not approve the sale of Quincy as well as the sale of Morton until this is resolved,” he said. “That is a dangerous thing to do because of the financial station of Quincy and Morton, where the financial situations are precarious. Prolonging the transaction could jeopardize the sales entirely.”
Furthermore, Steward feels the plan offered was the one agreed to.
"The MNA is lying. We gave them the penion we agree to and they are trying to change the terms of the deal to make it more generous for their workers," Murphy said.
Murphy stated that Steward is asking for the reviews of these transactions to continue along as normal without any type of delay, saying that to put thousands of jobs in both facilities at risk for the benefit was “inappropriate”.
Despite the potential disruption, both sides say they are on track for the completion of the merger.
“The attorney general and the Department of Public Health are in the process of reviewing…we’re hoping by the beginning of October,” the Attorney General will have completed her review, said Sandra McGunigle, a spokeswoman for QMC.
Harry Pierre, a spokesman for Attorney General Martha Coakley, also said the review was ongoing, though he would not specify a timetable.
“We want to make sure we do a complete and thorough review of the transaction before it goes forward,” Pierre said. The attorney general is still accepting comments by e-mail or mail.