Amid nurses strike, federal lawmakers seek probe into Tenet's use of COVID-19 relief funds

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A group of federal lawmakers is questioning Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare's use of taxpayer funds, including federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act grants and loans, as nurses at Tenet's Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Mass., continue a strike that began March 8.

In a June 29 letter, the members of Congress requested a full and complete list of all COVID-19 pandemic-related state and federal funding or other assistance that Tenet has received since Jan. 1, 2020. They also seek a full and complete accounting for how the for-profit hospital operator spent provider relief funds designed to cover lost revenue and expenses related to the pandemic.

The letter is signed by U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Edward Markey, D-Mass., as well as U.S. Reps. James McGovern, D-Mass., and Lori Trahan, D-Mass.

The lawmakers specifically reference Tenet furloughing staff in the early months of the pandemic and postponing the delivery of employee benefits, while seeking more than $2 billion in loans and grants from the federal government, an effort they say Tenet admitted was aimed at "maximizing [Tenet's] cash position."

"Tenet had an extraordinarily profitable year in 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, reporting annual earnings of over $3.1 billion and $2.9 billion in available credit. To date, Tenet has received over $936 million in grants from the Provider Relief Fund and over $1.5 billion more in relief from Medicare  Advance Payments and payroll tax match deferrals," the letter stated. "Meanwhile, Tenet Healthcare workers in hospitals across the country are currently on strike, seeking better pay and conditions."

Nurses at Tenet's Saint Vincent Hospital have been on strike for about four months, but hospital management and the Massachusetts Nurses Association have been unable to reach an agreement.

A key sticking point in negotiations has been staffing. On June 27, the hospital offered the union representing about 800 nurses at the facility a new proposal — the first since May 5 — to end the strike. But the nurses union said it offered "no meaningful steps in response to the nurses staffing concerns and even reduces staffing protections in a number of areas, including Tenet's reneging on a previous offer to eliminate flex positions." 

The union delivered a counterproposal to the hospital.

In response to the lawmakers' letter, a Tenet spokesperson said the company has supported its hospitals and caregivers throughout the pandemic with resources, PPE and other equipment, and that the government support Tenet received was "used solely for the purpose of providing COVID relief in accordance with the terms and conditions of the support funding."

Tenet said it also took steps to preserve cash and strengthen its balance sheet during the public health crisis, including borrowing $1.3 billion of new debt in the second quarter of 2020 and increasing its line of credit.

"Despite the new interest costs on this borrowing we incurred, we did it to safeguard the communities in which we operate by ensuring we would have resources to continue providing lifesaving care even if government lockdowns were extended," Tenet said.

Tenet said it has reached dozens of agreements with unions during the pandemic, including a settlement with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union at Saint Vincent Hospital, and it "brought that same spirit to the table with the MNA, holding over 30 bargaining meetings and delivering multiple proposals with improved terms as we work in earnest to reach an agreement."

Tenet said it does not agree with many of the statements and characterizations in the June 29 letter from congressional members from Massachusetts but will respond appropriately to the questions asked.

Read the full letter here.

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