City unions criticize clinic's treatment of public workers

But finance director points to money saved, high satisfaction rate

September 16, 2005|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Representatives of several city labor unions criticized the contracted health services provided by Mercy Medical Center to public workers yesterday. They complained of cases in which police officers, firefighters and other employees are being forced to work despite suffering from health problems and job-related injuries.

In other cases, employees who want to return to work are not being allowed to return to their jobs, the union leaders said during a City Council hearing.

"There's so much distrust among my membership," said Rick Schluderberg, president of the Baltimore Fire Fighters Local 734, which has about 1,300 members. "They report to work either ill or disabled."

But the head of the Mercy clinic, which treats employees, and the city's finance director said the arrangement with the hospital has been proven to be a good deal and provides a high standard of care for public workers while saving taxpayer money.

The controversy has been simmering for some time, according to union officials. City Council President Sheila Dixon and other council members introduced a resolution in May calling for a hearing on the issue. Yesterday's hearing was held by the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations committee, led by Councilman Robert W. Curran.

The city's relationship with Mercy goes back to 1996, according to city documents. Since then, the city has contracted with the hospital in downtown Baltimore to provide occupational health services for Police and Fire Department employees.

Three years ago, the city decided to contract with Mercy for similar health care services to its non-public-safety employees. Previously, the city had run its own clinic for its employees on Gay Street.

For the past two years, the city paid less than $2 million a year and expects to save $4.7 million over five years, city documents show.

Schluderberg and Lt. Frederick V. Roussey, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said their members were concerned about attending the clinic only to have medical staff order tests and procedures that weren't relevant to their condition or injury. They also complained of long delays. The City Union of Baltimore also was represented at the hearing.

Edward J. Gallagher, the city's finance director, offered survey results that showed that the majority of city employees were satisfied.

Dr. James D. Levy, Mercy's chief of environmental and occupational health, said the clinic's rate of getting people back to full duty is "very, very good," and that recurring injuries are down. City figures show that health-related claims decreased by 8 percent this year and that salary expenses related to accident leave fell 39 percent. Another hearing on the issue is expected to be scheduled.

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