Sidelined at DMC

Nov 25, 1998 at 12:00 am

An agreement reached last week between the Detroit Medical Center and a coalition of African-American doctors and minority business owners has been hailed as a victory for diversity by all involved.

But a significant faction of DMC and community activists whose grassroots protest helped bring the issue to a head say they have been completely eliminated from the process -- and the benefits others are trumpeting.

Members of the Movement for Justice -- who helped engineer broad support for a threatened boycott of Harper Hospital earlier this year-- say the highly publicized agreement reached last week between the Community Coalition for Health Care Equity and DMC does nothing for the majority of the medical center's employees.

"The racism that exists at the DMC isn't going to go away because the coalition shook hands with the CEO," says Lisa Resch, a unit clerk at Harper Hospital and a union employee who helped build the Movement for Justice.

Resch and other workers say most DMC employees will continue to be overworked and underpaid. They also claim that hospital budget-tightening measures will continue to threaten the quality of care.

Voices such as Resch's were conspicuously absent in the mainstream media as DMC administrators and minority doctors and business owners announced their agreement last week.

With about 16,000 full-time employees, DMC is the largest non-government employer in Detroit. The corporation runs eight nonprofit hospitals, two nursing homes, and various for-profit health-related businesses including outpatient clinics. It also owns a for-profit malpractice insurance company headquartered in Barbados.

Although most of the DMC's patients are black, African Americans hold only eight of 40 seats on the DMC's board of directors. In the agreement, DMC pledges to at least double the number of African Americans on the board by the year 2000 and to eventually increase minority representation in upper and middle management to 50 percent. The agreement also includes plans to increase purchasing of goods and services from local minority-owned businesses and to spend an additional $3 million on community health initiatives over the next three years.

"We are finally moving away at the DMC from business as usual," Detroit Medical Center CEO David Campbell said last week.

Movement for Justice, sparked in 1997 by the DMC's suspension of African-American Dr. Melvin Murphy, linked his high-profile fight against alleged racism with the plight of all workers and patients. Murphy became an outspoken symbol of the movement. Hundreds of people were drawn to town hall meetings, where a massive boycott of Harper Hospital was planned for February of this year. In essence, they were the foot soldiers who turned Murphy's suspension into a rallying point for disaffected workers and community members who wanted to see changes.

But at the last minute, Murphy made a deal for himself with DMC administrators, unilaterally canceling the boycott and, in the view of many, abandoning the very people who put him in a position to deal with a strong hand.

Murphy did not return phone calls from the Metro Times.

The Community Coalition for Health Care Equity includes prominent African-American doctors, politicians, business people, and religious leaders.

What it doesn't include, says Donna Stern, another Harper unit clerk and a union member, is the majority of the medical center's employees, 43 percent of whom are African American.

"The management gets to save face because they've made a deal with these black leaders who had nothing to do with the movement," she says.

Dr. Claud Young, founder of the coalition and national chairman of the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, says the coalition is fighting racism at the DMC, which he first noticed in the 1980s. He says he knows little about Movement for Justice.

"I don't think they have any kind of movement," he says. "They certainly didn't seem to represent the black folks. Most of them were white. Not that I have anything against white folks. It's just that we don't need white folks to carry our luggage."

When asked how the coalition's deal with DMC helps the majority of DMC employees, Young said, "They have their unions."

Shanta Driver, an African-American leader of Movement for Justice, says the overwhelming majority of the 500-to-600 active members are black. She called Young's argument a red herring. "I think it's sad that the coalition was willing to settle with so little consideration for what Detroit's black community really needs, which is better quality health care," Driver says.

DMC spokesperson Cheryl Yurokovich says that although working conditions are not addressed in the agreement, DMC, which is in contract negotiations with maintenance and service workers, is always trying to improve its work environment. Yurokovich says the agreement deals with what the coalition thought should be addressed.

"We were delighted to take that plan forward and announce it to the community," she says.

Detroit pediatrician Charles Inniss, who is affiliated with the DMC, says he supports the coalition, but is taking a wait-and-see attitude. "I would hope that by putting people who care into positions, there would be an improvement of working conditions, the physical plant, and care for patients," he says. "It's all part of the proof in the pudding, to see what comes of that."