UE Local 170, the West Virginia Public Workers Union, is mobilizing union members, patients and families, and communities throughout the state to oppose the state’s plans to privatize five of the state’s seven state hospitals.
In a state with chronically inadequate rural health care, an aging population, and an opioid addiction crisis, this privatization scheme will degrade medical care, weaken local economies, and hurt communities throughout the region.
Local 170 President Jamie Beaton and UE Eastern Region President Donna Morgan met with Bill J. Crouch, the Cabinet Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources, on November 28th to discuss the privatization plans. Crouch, a former consultant to the health industry, made it clear that he intends to seek legislative approval to dismantle and sell off the hospitals, most of which have been operated by the state for the better part of a century. His plan gives no consideration to the effects privatization will have on thousands of patients and employees, and their families and communities.
The first facilities to be eliminated would be the long-term nursing homes Jackie Withrow Hospital in Beckley, Hopemont Hospital in Preston County, and Lakin Hospital in Mason County. Crouch then intends to divest state ownership of two psychiatric hospitals, Bateman in Huntington and Sharpe in Lewis County.
“The incompetence of the Secretary’s oversight of these hospitals was recently illustrated by the freeze on federal Medicare and Medicaid funding at Sharpe Hospital,” says President Beaton. “This cannot be seen as anything but deliberate sabotage, given the Secretary’s previously admitted intention to get the state out of the healthcare industry altogether.” The funds were frozen because the Department of Health and Human Resources failed to provide required treatment plans for patients.
UE members have been picketing, distributing flyers, and actively organizing other workers at the state hospitals and other state agencies. The union held an informational picket at William R. Sharpe, Jr. Hospital on November 10th, which received coverage on local television. The union is distributing a petition called “Save Our State Hospitals” to the membership and other community members.
Local 170 is also reaching out to local county commissioners and city council members, asking them to make proclamations joining the union’s fight to stop the privatization of the healthcare facilities. A resolution passed by the Lewis County Commission on November 13th declares, in no uncertain terms, opposition to “any operational changes to the William R. Sharpe, Jr. Hospital.”
The union is crafting legislation to counter the privatization plans in the upcoming January legislative session, and making plans to support that legislation with various activities: a round-table discussion with legislators at the union hall on January 6th, Call the Governor Days, and lobby days on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Presidents Day.
For the past two years, Local 170 has fought successfully to stop the liquidation of state-run nursing homes and hospitals. In 2016, privatization forces attempted to sell off Hopemont in Preston County, Withrow in Beckley, Lakin in Mason County and Manchin Clinic in Fairmont. In 2017 the same opponents of public human services added two state hospitals – Sharpe in Weston and Bateman in Huntington – to their liquidation list, but UE stopped them again.
In this summer’s special legislative session, the House and the Senate voted to close Withrow, but Local 170’s public campaign and demonstrations convinced the Governor to veto the Withrow closing bill.
Local 170 is calling on all workers and West Virginians to continue to voice their support for the residents, patients, workers and communities that will be directly harmed if the state government is successful in its attempt to privatize these hospitals.