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Tensions grow as Quincy Medical Center nurses move toward strike

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  April 9, 2013 02:16 PM

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Jessica Bartlett

Quincy Medical Center nurses talk about staffing levels at a public hearing on Tuesday. Officials from Steward did not attend and said they never received an invitation.

Nurses from Quincy Medical Center sat in a sea of blue in the basement of a Quincy church Tuesday morning, as they aired their grievances in a dispute that their union and hospital describe in starkly different terms.

“Our job is to listen, ask questions, and it’s our job to spread the word in the community and discover how [recent changes] will impact patients,” said Benjamin Day, director of organizing for Healthcare-NOW! and host of the session.

The public event came one day after unsuccessful negotiations between the Massachusetts Nurses Association and hospital officials, with a one-day strike scheduled for Thursday.

All 236 nurses at the hospital plan to march on Whitwell Street from Thursday morning until Friday morning to protest what they call poor staffing levels.

Hospital officials have contended that the conditions described by nurses do not exist, but are being fabricated in an effort to gain the upper hand in negotiations.

According to Chris Murphy, the hospital's director of media relations, the nurses are "hoping that we don’t want [these allegations] in the community, and as a result we go out and give them more compensation and hire more nurses to pay them $52 an hour to watch empty beds. That’s what the 30 nurses who were being let go were doing."

He added that if the strike occurs, the hospital will remain fully operational.

Nurses who spoke at Tuesday's meeting repeatedly said there has been a decline in staffing levels and patient care since Steward Health Care bought Quincy Medical Center in the midst of a bankruptcy proceedings in 2011.

“It is very disappointing,” said Sharon Man, who has worked as a nurse in the psychiatric ward for eight years. “We just want to let the community know. This is happening. I’m living it. I’ll live it today when I work it.”

Specifically, nurses say staffing levels have been too slim to care for patients, and that the problem was only exacerbated when Quincy Medical Center announced it would close a 40-bed surgical unit and lay off an additional 30 nurses.

Nurses outlined times when there has been only two nurses to care for 22 patients on a psychiatric floor – far exceeding the 5-to-1 staffing ratio hospital officials have said is adequate, and said that a decline in technical assistants has not helped.

Nurses also said the reduction in surgical beds has caused patients to be bumped to other departments, which has nurses caring for patients in areas in which they aren't specialized.

“What that has done is caused boarding of admitted patients in the Emergency Department for up to 30 hours for up to 13 patients at a time,” said Stacey McEchern, an Emergency Department nurse who has been with the hospital for 13 years.

The two sides didn't even agree on whether hospital officials were invited to Tuesday's session. Nurses said they offered an invitation; Murphy disagreed.

In an interivew, Murphy also said it would make no sense to treat patients the way nurses have alleged.

“Why keep a medical patient in the Emergency Department if you have an open bed?” Murphy said. “There is no financial gain … their argument is we would drive revenue, but that would hurt revenue.”

Murphy said that the hospital does not board patients in Emergency Departments at all, but sends any patient with a need that would require a long stay to a medical surgical floor.

In the surgical unit specifically, the hospital staffs 54 beds from day to day, Murphy said, and only 40 are typically used.

“There is more demand in outpatient areas so we have more nursing needs we’ve been filling,'' he said. "In-patient areas have less need, so you see fewer nurses, fewer patients, and the nurses that will be laid off during the closure of this [surgical] unit were staffing empty beds, so there will be no impact on patients,” he said.

Murphy also said any accounts of low staffing with high patient volumes is fabricated.

As for wait times, though nurses said wait times can be as high as six hours long, Murphy said the hospital tracks waiting time using the computer system that tracks patients, and the waiting time is constantly updated on the hospital’s website.

On average, wait time is 30 minutes long, Murphy said.

Hospital officials and nurses also offered drastically different opinions on hospital investment, with nurses saying that Steward has not kept its promise to invest in the growth of the facility, while Murphy said the hospital has already invested $30 million in the building.

Though Murphy said the hospital will remain open to negotiations through the course of the pending strike, nurses contended that the hospital has been closed off to negotiations and that the strike will most likely occur.

Murphy declined to say specify how the hospital will fill those nurses positions, but said the hospital will be fully operational regardless of a strike.

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