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Nurses to picket Mission Hospital, citing concerns about safety

The labor union representing Mission Hospital nurses said members will picket two hospital facilities in Asheville June 15 to highlight concerns about under-staffing that, they contend, has affected the safety of patient care. The labor action is the latest in a growing fusillade of complaints about the safety and quality of patient care made to regulators and to Asheville Watchdog since for-profit HCA Healthcare took over nonprofit Mission Health in 2019.

In announcing the picket, National Nurses Organizing Committee North Carolina said Mission and St. Joseph hospitals — both owned and operated by HCA — need to make improvements to retain experienced registered nurses (RNs) and recruit new ones. Working conditions at Mission make it hard to attract new recruits, the union committee said. 

Asked to comment on the union’s statement, Nancy Lindell, Director of Public and Media Relations for HCA Healthcare North Carolina Division and Mission Health, said in an emailed statement: “Since mid-February Mission Hospital has held roughly a dozen bargaining sessions with the union representatives and, in those sessions, the parties have reached more than 30 tentative agreements” on topics including health and safety.

“Despite this progress, we understand that this kind of picketing activity sometimes occurs when a union and an employer are engaged in negotiations for a contract, as we are with this union,” Lindell wrote. “This is merely a form of demonstration that the union is legally allowed to do. We want the public to be assured that Mission Hospital remains open and continues to provide the quality patient care that Mission Hospital has always provided.”

In calling for picketing, Mission nurses said hospital management has consistently failed to adhere to its own staffing standards, including nurse to patient ratios.  

“Since HCA purchased our hospital in 2019, the management has cut corners on safe patient care by cutting support staff and violating their own nurse staffing grids,” said Shelby Runkles, a cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit RN at Mission. “With each additional patient, nurses are more prone to make mistakes and the risk of serious complications increases.”

Registered nurses at HCA Mission voted overwhelmingly last September to join National Nurses Organizing Committee-North Carolina, an affiliate of National Nurses United (NNU), and are negotiating with HCA Mission on a first collective bargaining agreement. The pickets are scheduled to be at Mission Hospital at 509 Biltmore Avenue and Mission’s St. Joseph Campus at 428 Biltmore Avenue from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Tuesday. — Barbara Durr

Stein hints at second thoughts about Mission sale to HCA

Although he approved HCA’s purchase of Mission Health in 2018, Attorney General Josh Stein now appears to be having second thoughts about that sale.  In a June 2 statement regarding a different hospital merger, he said he had “real concerns” about hospital consolidations, and specifically named HCA and Mission. “Bigger doesn’t always mean better. In fact, it often means worse and more expensive,” Stein said in the statement.

Stein approved the deal that ended more than 130 years of Mission’s legacy of putting quality of care over profits. But now, he said, his office has had more than 100 complaints from patients about quality of care and billing. “Consolidations drive up already inordinate health care costs,” Stein said. He urged hospital administrators, including those at HCA, to be transparent on their pricing. 

HCA raised prices 10 percent shortly after taking control of Mission in 2019. As reported in The Wall Street Journal in March, a number of HCA hospitals violated federal price transparency rules that required hospitals to post their prices starting in January 2021. HCA embedded coding in its website to hide prices from consumers trying to understand what their costs might be, The Journal found. After The Journal revealed the blocking links, HCA removed them.

State Treasurer Dale R. Folwell, reacting to the Journal article, criticized Stein in March for not taking action “to protect consumers.”

“I am disappointed by hospitals’ pattern of deceit,” Folwell wrote March 31. “Patients and taxpayers deserve to know what they’re paying for care. We must get rid of secret contracts and push the power down to the consumer. The attorney general needs to be involved.”

It is not the first time Stein has warned HCA about transparency. More than a year ago, the attorney general wrote to Greg Lowe, president of the North Carolina division of HCA Healthcare, to raise concerns including “a surge in complaints about quality of care” and about HCA’s transparency in billing patients.

In his latest letter to hospital administrators, Stein said obfuscation on pricing “layers needless anxiety and uncertainty on top of what are already some of the most stressful circumstances a person can face.” — B.D.

Abolish Department of Education, Cawthorn tells NC GOP leaders

Rep. Madison Cawthorn visits Trump Tower in New York City June 2 (PHOTO CREDIT DAILY MAIL)

U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC11), speaking at the North Carolina Republican Party’s Old North State Dinner on June 4 in Greenville, called for abolishing the federal Department of Education, The East Carolinian reported.

“We need to abolish the Department of Education because no Washington D.C. bureaucrat, no one who wants to push critical race theory, nobody who believes that they should indoctrinate our children at a young age and force politics upon them should be allowed to be in charge of our schools,” Cawthorn was quoted as saying.

Critical race theory is an academic discipline, primarily taught in law schools, that examines why racial inequality persists in the United States despite Constitutional guarantees and two centuries of laws enacted to codify equality and equal justice. It argues that racism is embedded in the American social system and enabled by the legal system.

“We need to allow the next generation to be raised in a nation where they’re not politicized from the age of five,” Cawthorn said. “When we have drag queens in our public libraries reading to our children, the libraries that we paid for … it is up to us to fight as hard as we possibly can for the next generation.”

Cawthorn, who was home-schooled and left college after one semester, sits on the House Committee of Education and Labor.

Cawthorn also called for abolishing the federal income tax and impeaching judges who “do not believe in our constitution.”

Former President Donald Trump spoke at the North Carolina dinner June 5. Cawthorn made an unannounced visit to New York City on June 2 and was photographed leaving Trump’s New York residence. — P.L.

HCA and Google partner to mine patient data

Mission Hospital (Photo credit: Bloomberg)

HCA and Google have agreed to work together to develop healthcare algorithms using patient records, The Wall Street Journal reported May 26. The patient records, including digital health records and data from internet-connected medical devices, would be extracted from HCA’s 186 hospitals and more than 2,000 clinics and facilities across the country, including Mission Hospital in Asheville and six other hospitals in Western North Carolina.

The new multi-year agreement expands a previous alliance between the two companies to share patient health data related to COVID-19. Google and HCA engineers will work to develop algorithms to “help improve operating efficiency, monitor patients, and guide doctors’ decisions,” according to the companies.

“Data are spun off of every patient in real time,” said Dr. Jonathan Perlin, chief medical officer of HCA, which is based in Nashville, Tenn. “Part of what we’re building is a central nervous system to help interpret the various signals.”

Some of Google’s earlier forays into the $3 trillion healthcare industry have raised concerns about data privacy. Dr. Perlin told The Journal that HCA patient records would be stripped of identifying information before being shared with Google data scientists and that the hospital system would control access to the data. — P.L.

Blue Ridge Public Radio’s Feingold to Retire in 2021

David Feingold (Photo credit: WLOS)

David Feingold, chief executive officer and general manager of Blue Ridge Public Radio, told staff this week that he plans to retire sometime before Thanksgiving, The Watchdog has learned. Feingold, 71, joined WCQS in July 2015 after a career in commercial radio and television broadcasting including six years as London bureau chief for CNN, and, for 16 years, as assistant general manager of NET, Nebraska’s statewide educational radio and television service. In Asheville, Feingold oversaw the creation of BPR News, a sister station to BPR Classic. A search committee has been formed by the BPR Board of Directors to find his replacement. Disclosure: Blue Ridge Public Radio is a publishing partner of Asheville Watchdog. — B.D.

Asheville native Joe West poised to break MLB record

Major League Baseball umpire Joe West is scheduled to be behind home plate Tuesday night, working his 5,376th regular-season game. In doing so, “Country Joe” will break baseball’s umpiring record held by Hall of Famer Bill Klem, who died in 1951, the year before West was born in Asheville.

Besides calling balls and strikes, West is famous for his feuds and confrontations with players and managers. Although his eyesight has been questioned on occasion, he has exquisite hearing, and last year ejected a team’s general manager who was yelling criticisms from a luxury box high above the playing field. In April West won $500,000 in a defamation lawsuit he brought against former major league catcher Paul Lo Duca, who falsely accused West of expanding the strike zone for pitcher Billy Wagner in return for Wagner letting West drive his classic 1957 Chevy.

West, who moved to Greenville, NC, for high school, was a star quarterback at Elon College (now Elon University). He plans to retire at the end of this season. West is a singer-songwriter and has recorded two country music albums, and is an avid golfer. Baseball scribes say he is almost certain to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Good luck, Joe! The Watchdog regrets that it cannot print this story in Braille so that you can read it. — P.L.

Update: Cawthorn taunts Liz Cheney after GOP purge

Cawthorn, who backed Cheney, now calls for her ouster

If there were a political Olympics, Madison Cawthorn would surely be a contender for a gold medal in back-flipping. In advance of this week’s House GOP vote on its leadership team, the 25-year-old congressman from Western North Carolina executed a perfect reverse somersault on Liz Cheney, whom he had supported for the GOP’s leadership just three months ago — only to run into a buzz saw of criticism from his far-right base on his Madison Cawthorn Chat channel on Telegram.  

Last week, apparently chastened, Cawthorn posted a broadside attack headlined LIZ CHENEY MUST GO. He implied that his reason for flipping was that Cheney had fist-bumped President Biden when he entered the House chamber for a joint address to Congress last month. Cawthorn also urged readers to donate to his 2022 reelection campaign.

Rep. Madison Cawthorn posted this May 8 on Telegram

Cawthorn has also back-flipped since telling CNN anchor Pamela Brown in January that “the election wasn’t fraudulent” and that “Joseph R. Biden is our President.” He also joined 16 other GOP freshmen in signing a letter to President Biden expressing willingness to work with the Democratic administration in the “hope we can rise above the partisan fray.”  

His Telegram followers booed him. Cawthorn has now reverted to calling the election “stolen,” writes that Donald and Melania Trump are still President and First Lady, vows to support “President Trump’s agenda,” and refers to President Biden and Vice President Harris simply as “Joe” and “Kamala.” 

As for rising above the partisan fray, Cawthorn has voted against every proposal brought forward by Democrats, including his vote against pandemic relief programs and broadband expansion for Western North Carolina. — Tom Fiedler

Documentary shows how racial covenants segregated Asheville neighborhoods

Asheville neighborhoods as we know them didn’t just happen. Racially restrictive covenants that barred the sale of homes to people of color have been among the many racist barriers to Black home ownership here. When Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity discovered such a covenant on a property it intended to develop, it decided to raise the profile of the issue by producing an 18-minute documentary. Watch the film here.

“We hope this film expands peoples’ knowledge of how past laws and practices shaped the current housing landscape,” said Ariane Kjellquist, Habitat’s communications director. The film includes interviews with Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides; Drew Reisinger, of the Buncombe County Registry of Deeds; Kel Compton, a Habitat homeowner; Sophie Dixon, of the Shiloh Community Association; Sarah Judson of the University of North Carolina at Asheville; and Parker Smith of Pisgah Legal Services. — B.D.

Free COVID-19 vaccinations, no appointment needed

Buncombe County Health and Human Services is now offering free, walk-in COVID-19 vaccinations at the Buncombe County vaccination clinic located on the campus of A-B Tech. The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is available to everyone 16 years of age and older at the A-B Tech location. The clinic is open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.