In These Times: Workers Blow the Whistle on Mass Death
As the coronavirus continues to batter the U.S., the horror stories still sound the same: basic medical supplies nowhere to be found, new patients keep showing up gasping for air, nurses with impossible workloads and back-to-back-to-back shifts, hospital staff with inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE) getting sick.
It might even sound like no one with any power in American healthcare has learned much since March, but that’s not true, according to Saum Sutaria, chief operating officer of Tenet Healthcare, a massive, for-profit hospital chain. “We’ve learned a tremendous amount,” Sutaria boasted to Wall Street analysts during a conference call in mid-June. The McKinsey alum and featured Aspen Ideas Festival speaker was talking about how to limit Covid-19 “costs on a unit basis of managing.”
Of course, hospitals can lower their costs in a lot of ways that make patient care worse. Tenet, for example, furloughed an astonishing 10% of its staff in March and April. It also stopped contributing to 401(k) retirement accounts, rationed PPE(and threatened to fire employees who brought their own), and slashed hours for its nurses. Some nurses were sent home mid-shift, leaving others to watch sections as big as 20 patients. At a Tenet hospital in Massachusetts, nurses filed more than 50 reports over two weeks in April, documenting specific instances of how the downsizing jeopardized patients. One declared she had “[never] been more ashamed to work” somewhere.
Tenet’s pandemic management style has been especially harrowing at Detroit Medical Center (DMC), Detroit’s major hospital group (with 2,000 beds) and the city’s biggest employer. Nearly 3,000 people have died from Covid-19 in Wayne County, where Detroit is. Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed by four former DMC nurses claims that, at one point, DMC was so short-staffed that a staggering number of the deceased were in rigor mortis before anyone noticed they weren’t breathing. The staffers allege hospital administrators actively increased the death toll by instructing nurses not to revive patients suspected of having Covid-19.