PHYSICIAN UNIONIZATION: N.J. Doctors Granted NLRB Hearing
A group of New Jersey physicians yesterday received a favorable ruling from a three-person National Labor Relations Board panel, granting them "a full hearing at which the physicians will try to persuade labor officials that they are HMO employees and should be allowed to unionize." The AP/Bergen Record reports that about 200 physicians from Atlantic and Cape May counties, all of whom work for AmeriHealth HMO, have been seeking to join the United Food and Commercial Workers union since last year. UFCW's Local 56 petitioned the NLRB for the doctors' inclusion into the union, "but the regional director dismissed the petition on Jan. 8, saying the doctors are independent contractors, not" de facto employees. Yesterday's decision came in response to the doctors' appeal of the January ruling. No date was set for the full hearing (9/9). UFCW President Anthony Cingaglia praised the decision as a "victory for working people," -- one that "shows that [the NLRB panel] understand[s] the importance of this case and the effect a favorable ruling could have on health care delivery ... as well as on the whole national health care debate" (UFCW Local 56 release, 9/8). The NLRB panel said a full hearing "will include witness testimony and cross examination." According to the panel's ruling, "[s]uch evidence will provide a more complete picture of the day-to-day interaction between the physicians and the HMOs and the impact of the HMOs on the physicians' access to and care of patients." The dissenting member of the panel, Robert Brame III, "called the remand 'little more than a fishing expedition for the benefit of counsel and a limited postponement of a sure and certain dismissal" (AP/Asbury Park Press, 9/9).
'Hamstrung' By HMOs?
The AmeriHealth physicians contend that HMO rules have "hamstrung" them and restricted doctors' ability to care for patients (AP/Bergen Record, 9/9). Dr. Arthur Nahas, a specialist in Northfield, complained that AmeriHealth dictates minute details of his practice -- from the number of hours he must see patients to the arrangement of chairs in his waiting room. "It doesn't follow any kind of medical formula or medical protocol that's ever been established," he said, adding, "I don't know how the insurance companies have gotten into the practice of medicine." UCFW attorney Patricia Barasch said the doctors' "hope is they can preserve their independent medical ability to make decisions, their autonomy." However, Dr. Richard Gilfillan, senior vice president and general manager of AmeriHealth of New Jersey, remained confident that the full hearing will reinforce "that physicians are professional independent contractors, not employees of AmeriHealth." He said, "While we think the hearing to be scheduled ... is unnecessary, we have no doubt that our position will be reaffirmed after a full hearing" (AP/Asbury Park Press, 9/9).