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New Law Puts Patients First

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY

When AFSCME Local 1199J Vice Pres. Virginia Stevens heard the story of 4-year-old Amber Brown (not her real name), the niece of a member, she didn't just get angry, she got active.

As a 2-year-old, Amber was treated for excessive sleeping, headaches and loss of appetite. The rules of her family's health care provider prevented their doctor from describing all the medical options available. If the physician had done so, the Browns may have discovered the child's brain tumor. Now, two years later, the tumor is inoperable and causes Amber great pain.

"It felt like I had been hit with a ton of bricks when I heard about this tragedy," recalls Stevens, who is a registered nurse. "It is tough enough when medical mistakes happen to any patient, but when it involves our union family, it is devastating," she says. Stevens represents the nurses' unit of 1199J, a member of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees.

As a result of this and other medical nightmares, Stevens — along with other union members and health care advocates — has participated in an intensive, broad-based lobbying campaign to improve health care in New Jersey. The heart of the effort was the Patients First Coalition, spearheaded by Local 1199J Pres. Victor Garcia. Other members of the coalition include the AFL-CIO, the Health Professionals and Allied Employees of New Jersey, and several labor groups.

The result of this hard work: The legislature approved the Health Care Quality Act which provides managed care patients with some of the strongest consumer health care protections in the nation.

"It is really sad that we have to take control of the quality of care for patients by fighting every step of the way through the legislature. But since that's what it takes, that's what we'll continue to do," says Garcia, a founder of the Patients First Coalition.

The new law guarantees that some 3 million managed care patients will have access to a current provider directory as well as written, up-to-date information about coverages, policy changes, appeals procedures, and notification when a doctor is taken out of the company's network.

It also protects doctors from being dismissed from an insurance plan for advocating better care for their patients. The law requires physicians — not clerks — to make decisions limiting medical care and eliminates the "gag rules" that precluded the Browns' physician from telling the family about costly treatment options.

In another victory for patients and health care workers, Gov. Christine Whitman (R) signed a whistle-blowers' bill that bars employers from retaliating against health care workers who protest or report what they deem are inappropriate patient care procedures.

"Under this law, nurses and other health care workers can feel comfortable coming forward about shortcuts and wrongdoing when it comes to patients' health," Garcia says.

Leading the fight, Garcia also helped win passage of the legislation to protect employees who report or testify about poor patient practices, injuries and medical mistakes.

In testimony before a joint hearing of the Senate and Assembly health committees, Garcia said: "For the past two years, we have been hearing horror stories from the institutions where our members work. ... Horror stories about real people, with real families, being victimized by a changing industry that puts profits before patients."

Garcia praises the two new laws. "At long last, state officials now recognize the need for patient protections and have answered our call to put patients first before profits."

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