Hospital staff complains of racial tension Facility's president, black organization have met three times

'Main problem is cultural'

Staff members charge minorities are barred from jobs of authority

September 26, 1996|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Local black leaders have been holding meetings with officials of Howard County General Hospital to address what they call mounting racial problems at the Columbia hospital.

The meetings, which began about two months ago, have come amid claims of racial tension among hospital staff members at all levels.

In more than a dozen recent interviews with The Sun, former and current doctors, nurses and administrators -- black and white -- charge that minority employees consistently are barred from positions of authority, including managerial posts and committee appointments.

No minority member holds a senior position. But hospital officials say no racial discrimination exists there.

The hospital officials say their three meetings with the African-American Coalition of Howard County are merely part of a community outreach effort.

A fourth meeting between hospital leaders and the coalition is scheduled Tuesday. Coalition officials say the meetings are an attempt to improve the hospital's working environment and to jointly develop a plan to address hospital employees' discrimination concerns.

"Our plan is not to put together a smear campaign," said the Rev. Robert Turner, coalition president. "The problem is not centered on one person or one incident. The main problem is a cultural one. It's a mind-set."

According to the interviews with hospital employees, that mind-set is unwelcoming for many minority workers.

The employees -- all of whom asked not to be named for fear of retribution at the hospital or other jobs -- allege that minorities work longer hours, believe they cannot voice opinions contrary to those of white superiors, and are less apt to be promoted than whites.

One black employee described the climate at the hospital as "pure terror" for minorities.

A black former employee added: "As a professional, I have never seen anything like it."

Several current and former African-American employees say they have developed stress-related physical and psychological problems as a result of the hospital's tense racial climate.

The hospital's president, Victor A. Broccolino, said serious racial problems do not exist there.

"I have had complaints from every segment of the organization from time to time as to how people were treated," he said. "A person who has a complaint generally feels there is discrimination involved. I have not received an abnormally high number of complaints on racial discrimination."

Broccolino and coalition leaders say he requested the first meeting with them. He said he did so because he had never had "direct dialogue with the organization."

At these meetings, Broccolino said, "the subject of racial discrimination did not come up per se. But there was an indication that the lot of minority employees could be improved. Minorities have the same opportunities as everyone else, but there are ways to enhance those opportunities, to reach out and be proactive and not reactive."

But several hospital employees said it is difficult for minority employees to rule out race as a factor in their job-related problems when the hospital's senior management is entirely white.

Hiring top-level minorities "is something that the hospital has neglected to do, and probably intentionally," alleged Dr. David Nyanjom of Columbia, a native of Kenya and a pulmonary care physician who sees patients at the hospital. "The effort and desire is just not there."

Broccolino acknowledged that no minorities hold top management positions, saying he hires the most qualified applicants he can find.

He said minorities make up 29 percent of the hospital's 1,216 staff members and 15 percent of its management. He said he could not provide a further breakdown of hospital staffing by race because it would involve private personnel information.

But others at the hospital disputed his data, alleging that the true representation of minorities in management is lower and that they are concentrated at the lower tiers of management. "What does he consider a manager?" asked Nyanjom.

Last year, a black doctor sued Broccolino, the hospital and several doctors, alleging race-based mismanagement.

Dr. Kline A. Price Jr., an obstetrician-gynecologist who once was president of the hospital's medical staff, charged that white doctors made several serious medical errors -- one of which may have led to a woman's death -- but were never punished. Price, on the other hand, was suspended for allegedly using a diagnostic procedure too frequently, his lawyer said.

The federal suit is expected to be heard in court next year.

During preparations for the trial, evidence was uncovered that supervisors "are overcritical of black employees over there, no question," said Thomas C. Beach III, Price's lawyer. "There are more requirements on black doctors, nurses and staff."

The Howard County Human Rights Commission, the agency that deals with local civil rights complaints, keeps data on complaints lodged against such bodies as the hospital, but they are kept confidential unless matters reach the courts, said James E. Henson Sr., commission administrator.

Price's case appears to be the first in which alleged race discrimination against Howard County General Hospital has gone to court, Henson said.

Pub Date: 9/26/96

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