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Medical workers and their union at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital are calling for a federal investigation into how the facility’s parent company, Tenet Healthcare, spent at least $764 million in federal bailout money.
The National Union of Healthcare Workers says the health care giant spent over $1 billion last year to expand its surgical units across the United States, instead of paying employees higher wages.
Congresswoman Katie Porter (D-Irvine) is calling for the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to investigate how Tenet spent the federal relief money.
The calls come after a scathing state report last year that found hospital management failed to maintain proper pandemic protocols, like separating virus patients from non-virus patients, and provided inadequate protective equipment for workers.
Union president Sal Rosselli said subcontracted workers’ wages have been stagnant, despite Tenet’s influx of pandemic cash
“We’re just fighting for the same pay and benefits as the rest of the hospital employees,” Rosselli said in a Wednesday interview, adding he wants the federal money to go to workers’ wages.
Rosselli said he’s also talked to US Sen. Alex Padilla about joining the push for an investigation.
Tenet officials said they used the grant money for its intended purpose.
Late Wednesday morning, at least 40 workers were protesting in front of the hospital.
“I don’t know what I’ve been told, but Tenet’s got a pot of gold,” the employees chanted.
Porter and the union are specifically focused on the Provider Relief Fund, which was created to offset lost revenue during the pandemic because many normal procedures were cancelled due to waves of virus patients being hospitalized.
“It’s right in the name! Congress created the Provider Relief Fund to help hospitals cover the losses caused by the pandemic. The funds were intended to help health care workers fight COVID-19 and keep their communities safe. These taxpayer dollars were never meant to be a capital infusion to the largest health care systems,” Porter said in a statement Wednesday.
Tenet recently bought multiple surgical centers across the country for $1.1 billion, according to Becker’s Hospital Review, a health care news agency.
“And yet, there’s evidence that several corporations, including Tenet Healthcare, may have used this money to expand their business, all while neglecting patients and their workers. I’m urging the FTC and HHS to investigate Tenet, because the American people deserve to know how their dollars were used, and policymakers need to know so we can make informed decisions in the future,” reads Porter’s statement.
Tenet received about $764 million in grants from the Provider Relief Fund, out of its $1.6 billion in overall federal pandemic relief, according to data from Covid Stimulus Watch.
Tenet disputes claims it spent federal funds on buying surgical centers.
“The pandemic resulted in an unprecedented strain on the healthcare system and the Cares Act support was vital in helping to partially offset challenges of the pandemic. The government support we received was used solely for the purpose of providing COVID relief to our providers in accordance with the terms and conditions of the support funding,” reads a statement provided by Tenet spokeswoman Jennifer Bayer.
The company said it also took on debt to continue operations.
“In addition, we took a number of steps to raise cash and strengthen our balance sheet during the pandemic, including issuing $1.3 billion of new debt in the second quarter of 2020, to help ensure critical care could continue uninterrupted,” according to the company’s statement.
Fountain Valley Regional Hospital received about $7.8 million in grants from the Provider Relief Fund, according to data from Covid Stimulus Watch.
The County of Orange also allocated $2.9 million of its federal CARES Act money to the Fountain Valley hospital.
This isn’t the first time the medical giant has been called out.
During last year’s summer pandemic wave, Fountain Valley Regional Hospital employees protested and criticized hospital management and Tenet for failing to properly isolate COVID patients and provide adequate protective equipment.
The employees and the union pushed for a state investigation into the hospital.
Last September, a scathing report from the California Department of Public Health found the hospital mismanaged its coronavirus patients and mixed them with non-virus patients.
“The [governing body] failed to ensure an effective, active hospital-wide infection control program for prevention, control and investigation of infections and communicable diseases, including COVID-19,” reads the report from the California Department of Public Health.
At the time, Tenet officials said they responded to the report and were following a plan of action.
Porter, along with Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), sent a letter late last month to acting chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, Rebecca Slaughter.
The two congresswomen said the funds disportionately went to large hospital corporations, like Tenet.
“At this time, the Provider Relief Fund has disbursed more than $100 billion in taxpayer dollars to health care providers. This money went disproportionately to hospitals that were in the best financial condition before the pandemic, including the largest hospitals systems and for-profit companies with more cash on hand than safety net providers,” wrote Porter and DeLauro.
The letter was also sent to Xavier Becerra, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Last month, workers protested low wages and lack of health care stemming from the subcontractor approach Fountain Valley Regional Hospital uses for certain employees.
Porter referenced their concerns in the letter to Slaughter.
“Tenet refused to provide affordable health insurance and livable wages to its infection-control staff. Consequently, approximately half of these workers lack employer-provided health insurance. Nonetheless, Tenet’s managers instructed them to work alongside COVID-positive patients in emergency rooms, patient treatment rooms and other areas,” the letter said.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio