Health and Science

Largest U.S. hospital owner accused in lawsuit of endangering staff during coronavirus pandemic

Key Points
  • The suit alleges that management at HCA-owned Southern California's Riverside Community Hospital failed to provide workers with adequate protective equipment.
  • It also accuses management of pressuring staff to ignore safety precautions to meet quotas.
  • The hospital also failed to alert staff to possible Covid-19 exposures, the suit says.

In this article

Monique Hernandez registered nurse at Riverside community hospital is overcome with emotions during a memorial and candle light vigil for Hollywood Presbyterian Nurse Celia Marcos who died two days after testing positive for Coronavirus at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.
Keith Birmingham | MediaNews Group | Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

A group of health workers and their union sued the nation's largest hospital chain, accusing an HCA Healthcare medical center of recklessly endangering staff and patients by violating federal coronavirus guidance on protective equipment.

The suit filed Thursday alleges that management at HCA's Riverside Community Hospital in Southern California failed to provide workers with adequate protective equipment, such as masks and gowns, and pressured staff to ignore safety precautions to meet quotas. It says the hospital also failed to alert staff to possible Covid-19 exposures and pressured staff who had symptoms to return to work.

The hospital "failed to take reasonable and necessary precautions to protect their employees, patients, visitors, and the community from the harmful effects of COVID-19, thereby facilitating the spread of the virus and putting the surrounding community at an unnecessarily heightened risk of infection," the suit says.

The case, filed in the Riverside County Superior Court, is the first against a national health-care company, according to the Service Employees International Union, which initiated the suit on behalf of its 97,000 members.

Riverside Community Hospital said it disputes the claims, and "we will defend it vigorously."

"No one takes the health and safety of our workers more seriously than we do, and since day one, our top priority has been to protect them— to keep them safe and keep them employed — so they can best care for our patients," a spokesman for the hospital said. "Any suggestion otherwise ignores the extensive work, planning and training we have done to ensure the delivery of high quality care during this pandemic."

Dave Regan, president of the union's California-based western chapter, said they decided to take action against HCA because they have been "particularly lax, and particularly sloppy and irresponsible" throughout the crisis. He added that the union represents staff in five HCA-owned hospitals in California and the company has "minimized and evaded responsibility."

"There are millions of health care workers out there who are risking their lives, who understand that this is part of what they signed up for and they're willing to do it, but they deserve their employers to be as accountable to them as they are to their patients and the facilities they work for," he said in an interview with CNBC. He said the suit takes on even more importance because Congress is negotiating whether to give legal protection to employers, including hospital owners, to shield them against coronavirus-related workplace hazard complaints.

"It would be an absolute moral failing and outrage to say, you can do anything you want, and you're not responsible, which is what the debate is in Congress," he said.

The four people in the suit include three hospital workers who were infected with Covid-19 and one whose mother, also an employee of the hospital, died of Covid-19.

"These individuals also believe they unknowingly spread the disease to family members or others in the community," the suit says. "Each of the individual Plaintiffs is a member of a racial minority group, making them statistically more likely to contract COVID-19, and more likely to suffer serious symptoms, including death."

The suit alleges that the "policies and practices" of the hospital "created or substantially assisted in the creation" of a public nuisance violation. The suit also says the hospital was negligent. 

The hospital caused "substantial, life-threatening harms to the health and safety" of the workers as well as to the community, the suit alleges. It also "led to the death of a worker from COVID-19, depriving her family of future economic and non-economic benefits."

Hospital management allegedly pressured one plaintiff, Ray Valdivia, into working despite exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms, the suit says. It says Valdivia tested positive for Covid-19 "hours after finishing this shift." Over a month after Valdivia initially tested positive for Covid-19 and was still experiencing symptoms, he was directed to return to work unless he tested positive for the virus again, the suit says. It adds that Valdivia got tested, worked one shift, and then received the second test results, which showed a positive reading.

The hospital and corporate parent "fell far short of the CDC recommendations," the suit says, adding that some hospital workers were "verbally abused" by supervisors for requesting masks and face shields.

HCA's stock price was up more than 1% Friday afternoon. The company reported net income of about $1.08 billion for the second quarter, including $822 million in government relief that was provided to offset costs to hospitals caused by the pandemic.

As of June 30, HCA operated 186 hospitals and about 2,000 other care sites in 21 states and the United Kingdom, according to the company's second-quarter earnings report.

The suit follows a similar suit filed by the New York State Nurses Association in April when hospitals across New York and especially New York City were overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients.

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