Allina primary care doctors launch historic effort to unionize more than 550 clinicians

More than 550 doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants across Allina’s 61 primary and urgent care clinics in Minnesota and Wisconsin could form the nation’s largest private sector union of clinicians.

Over 60% of Allina primary and urgent care clinicians signed onto a petition filed with federal labor regulators on Friday to hold a union election to be represented by Doctors Council SEIU, according to union leaders.

Allina clinicians they’re looking for a greater voice in the operations of their clinics and a union will give them the power to push back against the “corporatization” of health care.

“A union is the only real path to making things better,” said Dr. Matt Hoffman, a family physician at Allina Vadnais Heights Clinic just north of St. Paul. “People who provide care, who are on the front lines … we really do not have a voice in the system, and we can’t advocate for our patients on a system level.”

Hoffman says Allina’s drive to increase revenue and cut costs is jeopardizing patients’ health, and leaving doctors burned out from rushing through patients and grinding through mountains of paperwork with little support.

Allina doctors pointed to the health system’s practice of cutting off care to patients behind on medical bills, which was recently exposed in reporting by The New York Times. Following the story and public outcry, Allina stopped the practice.

A spokesperson for Allina shared a statement on behalf of the health system saying they share their staff’s commitment to providing high-quality care.

“That shared commitment is the foundation of our collaboration to identify ways to increase provider engagement through operational improvements, new communication tools, additional well-being resources, and enhanced employee benefits to improve the provider experience,” the statement said.

The surge in union activity among even the most privileged health care providers like doctors is driven by larger economic forces reshaping health care. Physician-owned practices are being bought out by ever-larger health systems.

While physicians and other advanced practitioners once commonly held vaunted positions in their clinics with a great deal of autonomy, they are increasingly employees serving faraway bosses.

A study sponsored by the Physicians Advocacy Institute found that the share of physicians employed by hospitals, health systems or corporate entities grew from 62% in 2019 to 74% in 2022.

“There’s a much more assembly line feeling in health care now than there used to be,” said Jennifer Mehmel, a pediatrician at Allina’s Bandana Square Clinic.

Mehmel, 63, was part-owner of Aspen Medical Group, a physician-managed practice that merged with Allina about 15 years ago. She said before the merger, physicians like her had a voice in how the system was run and she felt they made decisions based on patient well-being, not just the bottom line.

Mehmel said she’s retiring this week — years earlier than she expected — because of Allina’s management. She’s considering other options to continue serving patients.

“Corporate medicine isn’t working for me anymore,” Mehmel said.

The union drive by Allina health care providers in outpatient clinics comes on the heels of doctors voting 67 to 38 to unionize at Allina’s Mercy Hospital in March. Allina is contesting that election, however, alleging that three supervisory physicians coerced their colleagues into supporting the union.

Dr. Alia Sharif, one of the accused physicians, says the charge of coercion by her employer is simply a union busting tactic cooked up by the well-heeled law firm Littler Mendelson, which is representing Allina and specializes in “lawfully” quashing union efforts.

Allina argued Sharif has power over people’s compensation and therefore used undue influence in organizing her colleagues to support the unionization effort, Sharif said.

“The compensation and benefits decisions are made at Allina’s headquarters. I’ve never been there,” Sharif said. “If I made those decisions, I’d give everyone great benefits and great pay.”

An administrative law judge has not yet ruled on the case.

A spokesperson for Allina shared a statement on behalf of the company saying they are “engaging with the (National Labor Relations Board) and their process to ensure a free and fair election.”

Allina is one of the largest health care systems in Minnesota, with about $5 billion in annual revenue and tens of thousands of employees in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Yet the health system has also reported financial difficulties in recent months, cutting 350 jobs and delaying construction of a new hospital.

Allina employees say those cuts did nothing to reduce administrative bloat and instead reduced services for patients.

“I haven’t heard about any decrease in pay for executives. Our CEO makes over $3 million a year. Allina is not investing in the people that see patients,” Hoffman said.



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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F08%2F17%2Fallina-primary-care-doctors-launch-historic-effort-to-unionize-more-than-550-clinicians%2F by Max Nesterak

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