Service Employees International Union – United Healthcare Workers West – said it filed an unfair labor practices charge against Prime Healthcare for what the union said amounted to an “illegal firing” of a 35-year veteran of Encino Hospital Medical Center, which is owned and operated by the for-profit healthcare company.

The union claims that Pat Aguirre, who has worked at the medical center for 13 years, was fired for testifying against Prime’s bid to purchase Victor Valley Community Hospital last month before a hearing by State Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Aguirre testified that Prime’s business practices have had a negative impact on patients at Encino.

Harris rejected Prime’s purchase of Victor Valley on Sept. 20, stating that the purchase was “not in the public interest.”

In a statement, the union said Aguirre’s dismissal was the result of her “efforts to hold the hospital accountable to high patient care standards and for her advocacy for workers’ rights.”

Encino Hospital officials were not available for comment, but said in a statement that the union is conducting “an extortion campaign” against the company, following the firm’s decision over a year ago to reject various union demands.

California Watch, an independent non-profit funded by the Center for Investigative Reporting, has published numerous articles on Prime Healthcare’s questionable practices, including charges that the hospital operator has unnecessarily transferred a high number of Medicare patients from emergency beds to hospital beds, often without the knowledge of their families or personal physicians.

According to California Watch, the aim was to “maximize the number of insured patients treated in hospitals owned by the company.” Hospitals owned by Prime admitted 63 percent of its ER patients; the chain with the second highest admission rate was Tenet Healthcare Corp, which admitted 39 percent of patients, California Watch reported on July 23, 2011.

Prime Healthcare has said that two Medicare accreditation agencies have visited Prime facilities in December 2010 to investigate the allegations of Medicare fraud as well as allegations of high rates of septicemia, a blood infection. According to the company “there was no evidence to support the allegations of Medicare fraud.”

Judy Temes