In Worcester County, a Question 1 standoff

UMass Memorial Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts. The “No on 1” sign on the hospital building has drawn criticism from some advocates for patient limits, Wednesday Oct. 24, 2018. Photo by Alex MacDougall/ BU News Service.

By Alex MacDougall
BU News Service

WORCESTER — The signs are familiar to anyone who drives through any populated area in Worcester County. “VOTE NO ON 1” in bold white letters behind a dark blue background.

But the location of this particular sign is unusual, high atop UMass Memorial Hospital in Worcester. When it comes to Question 1, which concerns whether nurses should be limited to a select number of patients at a time, the implication is that the hospital as a whole was against the proposal.

Mariah Tangney, a nurse at UMass Memorial, wanted people to know that wasn’t the case. She took a picture of one of the signs and put it on her Facebook page.

“It both angers and saddens me to see this sign outside of my place of work,” she wrote on October 19. “I can ASSURE YOU that a large majority of the floor nurses, the nurses who take care of both you and your family members, are voting YES ON ONE for safe patient limits.” The post quickly gained traction on the social media platform, and was shared more than 230 times as of October 30.

Television ads and lawn signs run rampant for both sides, leading to some confusion among voters. When looking at the money behind the campaigns, however, a more clear picture begins to unfold.

According to the Massachusetts Office of Campaign Finance, the state bureau that tracks campaign funding, the advocacy for a “Yes” vote is led by Committee to Ensure Safe Patient Care, which has raised almost $11 million so far this year.

One of its primary contributors is the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA). The largest nurses union in the state, MNA’s Region 2, based in Worcester, has donated over $343,000.

Opposition to Question 1 is led by the similarly named Coalition to Protect Patient Safety, which mainly receives funding from the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association (MHA), whose members include hospitals and their administrative staff.

The “No” backers have raised over $19 million. Donations from the “UMass Health System” totaled almost $39,000 as of Oct. 31, much less than the union donations, but still significant.

Nurses in favor of the “Yes” vote, such as MNA board member Colleen Flynn Wolfe, who also works at UMass Memorial, claim hospital administrators are using ads to deceive voters into believing the issue is more divisive than it is among nurses, and to mislead the public.

“It’s diabolical,” said Wolfe. “They know where the nurses stand, but they’re just out here trying to scare and confuse people.”

In addition to its aggressive use of signs, UMass Health System’s donation to the Coalition has drawn anger out of nurses such as Wolfe, due to the non-profit nature of the hospital. According to its 2016 Hospital Profile, over 65 percent of its funding comes from programs like Medicare and other taxpayer-funded programs.  

Tobe Berkovitz, an assistant professor of advertising at Boston University, says such aggressive campaigns are not unusual for a non-profit when it comes to ballot issues like Question 1.

“You could certainly argue whether it’s appropriate to use funds for something that’s in the hospital’s own best interest but it’s common practice,” Berkovitz said. “There are ballot propositions all over the country and non-profits generally contribute, whether it’s one way or the other.”

Douglas Brown, president of community hospitals and chief administrative officer for UMass Memorial, said the hospital has a legal right to speak out for a cause that it believes could financially harm the hospital. He also said the money UMass Health System gave was from revenue derived from sources other than taxpayers.

“This is the biggest threat to Massachusetts hospitals in a decade,” Brown said.

He then claimed UMass Memorial would stand to lose $40 million if a “Yes” vote were to be reached.

“Given the magnitude of the situation, we need to make sure voters understand the issue,” Brown added.

For Wolfe too, educating voters on the subject has been a top priority.

“It’s going the way the way we expected it to. We go out there and talk to voters, canvas and lead marches, wherever there’s people, we go,” Wolfe said. “Voters are being shown a lot of different information and are confused but after we talk to them, they tend to understand the issue better.”

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