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Santa Clara County resolves dispute over threats to doctors

Dispute over threats to doctors in Santa Clara County resolved
The complaint arose from threatening letters to doctors in Santa Clara County, with strike action over stalled contracts and unsustainable working conditions. The settlement includes the county retracting threatening statements made by its executives and requiring training on California labor law.

By Ben Irwin. San Jose Spotlight.

A long-running dispute between Santa Clara County and its doctors appears to have come to an end.

Santa Clara County has settled an unfair labor practice charge with Valley Physicians Group, a union that represents more than 450 doctors in the county's health system. 

The complaint arose from letters threatening unionized doctors with striking over stalled contracts and unsustainable working conditions. The settlement includes the county retracting threatening statements made by its executives and requiring training on California labor law.

Rachel Ruiz, president of the Valley Physicians Group and a pediatric gastroenterologist at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, told San José Spotlight that the heart of the agreement is that the county recognizes that it is at fault for threatening doctors and must retract the hostile letters sent by Jeff Smith, former County Executive, Chief Medical Officer Phuong Nguyen and Paul Lorenz, CEO of Santa Clara Health & Hospital System.

“Coming out of the post-Smith era, I think (the deal) is a win for both sides,” Ruiz told San José Spotlight. “We want to move forward, but also make it clear that… we are going to speak up and stand up for what is right, our rights protected, and we will not tolerate intimidation.”

Smith, who oversaw the dispute between emergency department doctors, proved a controversial figure during his 13 years in office. Doctors and other VMC workers said the executive was deaf and did not understand their needs.

A spokesperson for Lorenz directed questions to the county executive's office.

James Williams, the county executive who replaced Smith in July, told San José Spotlight that he hopes to work closely with the county's unionized doctors to financially improve the public health system and continue to expand quality and access to service.

“It was a challenging negotiation for both sides, and this (agreement) is part of overcoming that and moving in a really positive direction,” Williams told San José Spotlight. “The issues that were happening then are simply not relevant today and hopefully won't be in the future.”

The county reached an agreement with Valley Physicians Group last October, just days before its union doctors planned to strike. Ruiz said the contract that added standardized pay increases is an improvement for doctors who worked on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is still more to do.

“We are a safety net hospital system,” Ruiz said. “We want fair wages…we (also) want to be able to advocate for our patients and help them get better access to health care. “I think we’re still fighting for that.”

In March, emergency department doctors scored another victory. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved a new five-year management contract with San Jose-based Emergency Physicians Associates Management Corporation. The company already offers similar services at the county's two other hospitals, O'Connor and St. Louise Regional. VMC doctors fought the county over the renewal of their existing contract with US Acute Care Solutions. Doctors claimed that US Acute Care Solutions put profits before patient care.

Ruiz said some departments are not accepting new patients. Whether due to lack of staff or “culture” issues, she would like to see the county work with doctors to address the situation.

“We have doctors who leave all the time,” Ruiz said. “Why are they leaving?…How can we make clinics and hospitals work more efficiently?” “With James Williams, we hope to be part of the solution.”

Read the original note giving click here.

You may be interested in: Union leaders reject the ?olive branch? mayor of San José

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