Testing doctors' loyalty to striking nurses

Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher soundly criticized his Democratic opponent's running mate, a surgeon, yesterday for refusing to cross a picket line to work at Hazard Appalachian Regional Hospital, where registered nurses are on strike. Fletcher, who also is a physician, raised the issue during an hourlong debate with Steve Beshear at the Seelbach Hilton Hotel in Louisville. Fletcher claimed that state Sen. Dan Mongiardo chose to align with union interests rather than patients.

"Right now, Dan Mongiardo won't cross the picket line down in Harlan Kentucky; why not?" Fletcher said. Mongiardo said he is continuing to take care of patients with medical emergencies and urgent cases but supports more than 630 registered nurses at Hazard and six other Kentucky hospitals, plus two in West Virginia, who walked off the job at 12:01 a.m. Monday when their contract expired.

Weeks of negotiations between the union and hospital administrators came to an impasse over several issues including staffing ratios, mandatory overtime and pay raises. The nurses also want better retirement and medical benefits.

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and Greater Louisville Inc., which sponsored the debate, along with Fletcher have supported "right-to-work" legislation that would allow nonunion employees to work in union shops. After the debate, Fletcher said doctors were obligated to care for patients despite the strike and said he crossed a picket line in 1987 to deliver babies. "I've got some real questions -- a physician that won't cross the picket line to take care of his patients, I can't imagine that," Fletcher told reporters.

Mongiardo said he's asking patients seeking elective procedures, such as tonsillectomies, to wait or get referred to another location. Striking nurses were standing up for patients' welfare and the issue needed support, Mongiardo said.

"This is a stance for a problem that is really in a crisis situation," he said during a telephone interview. "I think it's time that patients, doctors and hospitals alike stand up together and try to solve the problems."

Mongiardo said that his position was not connected to the upcoming Nov. 6 election and that "fighting between Democrats and Republicans at election time is not the answer to this problem."

Neither Fletcher nor Beshear talked about a report to be released today that looks into Beshear's role in the liquidation of the now-defunct Kentucky Central Life Insurance Co.

The report concerns an investigation that centered on Beshear's former law firm, Stites & Harbison.

The firm was paid $21 million over 15 years for assisting in the liquidation of Kentucky Central. The company owned citrus groves, hotels and billions of dollars worth of life insurance policies but was overtaken with financial problems and collapsed in the mid-1990s.

Fletcher has claimed Beshear and his firm prospered from the bankruptcy while hundreds of Kentuckians lost their jobs and thousands lost their savings.

Stites & Harbison was the subject of an ethics investigation 12 years ago that looked into whether Beshear's firm "violated any duty" or rules of ethical conduct when it signed on to lead the liquidation of the insurance company.


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