Medical staff members at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation are seeking representation by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, charging that care is suffering.
By Abby Sewell
September 24, 2013
A group of medical providers at clinics run by an influential but controversial AIDS-focused nonprofit group have launched a bid to unionize, saying that the organization's leadership has lost sight of its mission and patient care is suffering.
Doctors, nurses and physicians assistants in the AIDS Healthcare Foundation's Los Angeles and Bay Area clinics have been engaged in a behind-the-scenes struggle with the organization's leadership for the last two months.
On July 31, medical staff members submitted a petition to the National Labor Relations Board, announcing their desire to organize under the National Union of Healthcare Workers.
The foundation's leadership has contested the validity of the petition, saying that some of the employees involved in the union drive are supervisors not allowed to take part in union organizing.
The organization, with a budget of $750 million, runs a network of HIV and AIDS testing and treatment facilities around the world, as well as its own pharmacies. Its 10 clinics in the Los Angeles area serve more than 7,000 patients, many of them through contracts with the county.
Local providers say that those clinics are understaffed, that there is a lack of Spanish interpreters and that there has been a push to pack more patients into the schedule each day at the expense of quality care. They say their complaints have been disregarded and that the organization is focusing too much energy on political advocacy. Those include fights with the county and with the adult film industry over attempts to mandate condom use on set as a way to reduce exposure to social diseases.
"We support AHF's mission — that's why we're all here in the first place, but we feel like they're not really carrying out their mission," said Felipe Findley, a physician's assistant at the foundation's downtown clinic.
Kim Sommers, medical director at the organization's Hollywood center, recalled that one day the clinic was so over capacity that a patient suffering from chest pains was sent home by the lone over-stressed medical assistant on duty because no one was available to give him the electrocardiogram Sommers had ordered.
"He came back two days later and he ended up being OK," Sommers said. "But the point is, we don't want to wait for something horrible to happen."
AIDS Healthcare Foundation founder and President Michael Weinstein said the union process had been "tainted" by the involvement of middle managers.
"They've got an absolute right to form a union, but right now it's been organized by people in management, and they've put a lot of pressure on rank-and-file employees," he said. For their part, employees have filed complaints alleging that the executive leadership retaliated against them for their union activities.
Weinstein said the organization is indeed focused on patient care and that changes in scheduling policies were made because the organization had lost patients when they were unable to get follow-up appointments scheduled in a timely manner. He defended the organization's political activities as a core part of its mission.
"The advocacy is who we are, and I would argue that the advocacy we do has very much helped us to improve the care in our patient centers," he said.
The workers went public with their complaints as the foundation's leadership is heading into another political fight with Los Angeles County. The foundation says that the county's Department of Public Health is sprawling and inefficient and is campaigning for a measure for the June ballot that would create an independent health department in the city of Los Angeles.
The county Board of Supervisors voted 3 to 2 last week to go to court in an attempt to stop the measure from getting to the ballot. The board is scheduled to discuss the potential effects of the proposal Tuesday.
Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.