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Doctors for County May Leave Union

Critics say labor group hasn't kept vows, but it blames government. Voting ends June 18.

June 06, 2003|Charles Ornstein | Times Staff Writer

Four years ago, doctors working in Los Angeles County's public hospitals and clinics delivered a significant victory for organized labor when they voted to join a union.

The county's 800 doctors are once again in the midst of an election -- this time on whether to drop out of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists. The balloting, conducted by mail, ends June 18.

Critics of the union say that it hasn't delivered on its promises and that, if anything, doctors have lost money because the county has reduced their benefits.

"The best people to represent the doctors are the doctors themselves," said Dr. Rose Venegas, a pathologist at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar and union opponent.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Doctors union -- An article in Friday's California section about a decertification election involving Los Angeles County physicians incorrectly identified Dr. Rose Venegas as a pathologist at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar. She works at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance.

Venegas and others say the union promised doctors that they would not lose their popular "megaflex" benefits if they voted to unionize. Under megaflex, they were given as much as 19% above their base salaries to purchase insurance and other benefits. Whatever money was left over, they got to roll back into their paychecks as cash.

But as of January 2002, the county stopped providing megaflex to the doctors, saying the benefit was available only to employees not represented by a union. The county replaced it with a standard union benefits package, which in most cases was far less generous.

The cancellation of megaflex has cost some senior doctors more than $20,000. Dr. Ronald Koretz, a gastroenterologist at Olive View and an anti-union leader, said his gross income dropped $15,000 last year. That includes lost contributions to his retirement account

As it fights to retain the doctors, the national union says the county was trying to undermine it by terminating the megaflex benefits. Although the county Employee Relations Commission upheld the county's action, the union has sued in Superior Court to restore megaflex.

"The county took away benefits, and they blamed the union for it," said Joe Bader, regional administrator in Los Angeles of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists. "We think most of the doctors will reject that."

Bader said the county is also violating a state law passed last year that prohibits it from removing health benefits from employees after they join a union. The bill, signed by the governor in September, is retroactive to July 2001.

"The county is refusing to obey that," Bader said. "When we eventually prevail, it's going to be a pretty big bill."

County officials said that they believe they negotiated in good faith and that their actions conform with state law.

"We did not remove health benefits. They have health benefits," said Donna Singh, the county's chief of employee relations. "They simply have health benefits under a different plan.... We feel very comfortable in our position."

Tony Butka of the Employee Relations Commission said union opponents filed their decertification petition in late 2001 but that a vote was delayed until now while the union unsuccessfully pressed its claim alleging unfair labor practices.

Even with the loss of megaflex, Bader said, the union has negotiated important victories for physicians, including pay for those who are on call in case of emergencies. The county also agreed to give seniority raises to doctors annually instead of every two years until they reach a pay ceiling.

Dr. Louis Simpson, a psychiatrist at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, said physicians should remain unionized to continue receiving assistance with grievances and having a collective voice in decision-making.

Although the union represents all 800 or so doctors in the county system, only about 280 are dues-paying members.

"Doctors are being pushed around throughout the country, and they have to stick together. And this issue is part of the process of sticking together," Simpson said. "I think this would have national implications if the union is voted out here. And it would be a very sad day for doctors."

Both sides say they expect the vote to be much closer than in 1999 -- when the union won decisively, 341 to 182. About 300 doctors did not cast ballots in the first election.

"I think we're going to win this election, because people vote their pocketbook," Koretz said.

The union expressed confidence also. "We're getting some really good feedback from the docs that they really need the union now more than ever," Bader said.

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