On April 17, workers at Aspirus Riverview Hospital will have sat down at the table with Aspirus executive leaders to present a plan for resolution of problems that have snowballed since Aspirus corporate took over the community’s hospital. What happens in this meeting will affect not only workers at the hospital but families in the surrounding area.
Before Aspirus came to north-central Wisconsin, the people in the area relied on Riverview Hospital, a community hospital, for their health care as well as for numerous jobs. For over 40 years Riverview Hospital delivered care by long-term physicians who were committed to the area and to their patients.
The workers at the hospital, from front-desk staff to intake personnel to billing, earned wages that allowed them to support their families, buy homes, and purchase health insurance plans at a reasonable cost. The community had a stake in the hospital. It was community oriented, and people felt invested. People liked working there, and members of the community felt safe knowing they would get good care.
The Aspirus hospital system had been spreading up the map, acquiring small community hospitals. In 2015 it made its move on Riverview Hospital. A battle began. Fearing what a corporation might do to their community, people overwhelmingly said “no” to the plan to purchase. Aspirus then made threats, saying that if its offer was rejected, it would build a large Aspirus hospital close to Riverview, thus threatening to run the community hospital out of business.
Feeling like it
had no other choice, the community reluctantly agreed to the purchase, with the condition that there would be a trust fund dedicated to the community and that the hospital would keep “Riverview” in its name. But when the cover slid off the sign at the opening ceremony, the name said only “Aspirus.” As one employee said, “It made us feel like we had been erased.”
The arm-twisting purchase and name change were signs of things to come.
The most serious, and harmful, change was to employees’ healthcare plan. Aspirus owns the insurance company that provides the health insurance to employees at the hospital. The plan is very expensive, with high deductibles. Aspirus profits off of employees who get sick and have to utilize the Aspirus insurance plan for medical care.
One grandmother who has been an employee at the hospital for over 40 years got cancer. She was forced to use her retirement savings to pay for her treatment through Aspirus’s expensive plan. While in treatment she continued to work at the hospital because she financially had too. She is over 60 years of age, has two young grandchildren to help care for, and due to the high cost of Aspirus’s medical plan and continued low wages, now she cannot afford to retire. A hospital with a caring and community-centered philosophy would not have treated her this way.
Years of dedicated service have not resulted in a living wage for Aspirus employees. This is particularly true for the hospital front-line staff. These are the first people that you see when walking in through the door. They are the people who greet you, get you registered, help you learn your plan options and advise you; they perform billing tasks and informational intake.
These front-line employees are the ones who, on April 17, will be represented in the meeting with Aspirus executive leadership. The employees’ message will be that “positive, incremental changes need to be made.” Initially, they want to see a plan to move their salaries to a “living wage” level. A living wage is considered the bare minimum for being able to support yourself, not even including a family, and is based on the cost of living in an area.
This is a call to action for the employees and a call to action for a healthier, more stable community where people can buy homes, frequent local businesses, and enjoy a healthy economy—all because they are paid fairly in proportion to the value that they provide.
“When you have a community-oriented organization, there is a trust that is built between the organization and the people who work and live there” says the business agent and president of OPEIU Local 39 Kathryn Bartlett-Mulvihill, who represents the members currently bargaining a new contract at Aspirus “ When that trust is broken, people lose faith and feel unsure about the future. When they don’t get fair wages, they don’t spend as much at their local shops, they may not be able to afford to buy a house, and they may fear for the security of their jobs. This is when people begin to move away, and the area loses value.”
“Many of the workers we’ve talked to have a history here. They were born in this hospital. They’ve said goodbye to dying family members in this hospital. They’ve delivered their babies in this hospital. They have depended on good, safe care from long-standing doctors at this hospital. Now things are not the same. The doctors have little to stay for and move in and out through a revolving door. There is little trust, and it’s creating bad feelings. We need to change all that.”
Given that the Aspirus logo states “Passion for Excellence, Compassion for People,” there is hope that Aspirus will listen and honor its own claim beginning with its employees.