St. Charles hospital in Bend has hired a firm to begin recruiting nurses in the event of a strike by members of the Oregon Nursing Association who work at the hospital, said a hospital official.
“We have a responsibility to our community to continue providing high quality care no matter what the circumstances,” wrote Lisa Goodman, communications coordinator for St. Charles in an email Tuesday.
The decision comes in the wake of stalled bargaining and mediation sessions between the ONA and hospital administration as they work to hammer out a new three-year contract. Patient care and the role of nurses in the hospital are at the heart of the conflict, rather than wages or benefits.
Though the official position of ONA is that a strike is not imminent, privately leaders of the nursing union said a strike is being strongly considered. Union leaders believe hospital administration aims to do away with or water down the most senior union nursing positions in the hospital.
“They are trying to gut the role of the charge nurse and eliminate the rapid response nurse,” Alison Hamway, an ONA representative told a large crowd of nurses and supporters as they paused for a rally during a picket outside the hospital Monday.
An estimated 300 ONA members and their supporters stretched several blocks of Neff Road hoisting signs scrawled in black marker with messages like “Patients before profits” and “Support nurses.”
The messages stem from two changes St. Charles has proposed to nursing positions.
The first is the elimination of a critical care “float” nurse who provides rapid response to emergencies and provides assistance with very sick patients. A great deal of the troubleshooting role of the critical care float nurse would then be taken up by the hospital’s charge nurses, who would see their job descriptions changed dramatically in other ways, too.
Under a plan proposed by St. Charles last week, charge nurses—who, according to union members, have the highest level of authority in the hospital of nursing union members—would no longer perform an array of administrative functions such as admitting and assigning patients, and determining how many patients a nursing unit can accommodate safely.
Taking away those duties allows charge nurses to spend more time with patients and mentoring other nurses, leading to greater patient satisfaction and, hopefully, higher reimbursement rates from the federal government through Medicare, said Tim Eixenberger, chief nursing officer and an administrator at St. Charles.
“That’s where we see our returns,” said Eixenberger, who said the hospital will actually increase its payroll to provide more administrative supervisors to take on the administrative jobs charge nurses had been performing.
Union members said they don’t believe the changes will benefit patients or nurses.
They said taking away rapid response nurses will mean fewer highly qualified staff members to intervene with very sick patients, leading to more transfers to the intensive care unit and greater costs for patients.
In addition, taking away leadership duties from charge nurses and putting them in the hands of administrative supervisors basically means removing advocates for nurses and patients from leadership positions, said union members.
“It’s a smokescreen,” said John Nangle, a longtime nurse at St. Charles and leader of the ONA, about the hospital’s claims that its plan will lead to better patient care. “This is an end run around getting rid of the charge nurse—make no mistake about that.”
In an indication of the increasingly high profile of the conflict between St. Charles and the nursing union, State Senate candidate Tim Knopp attended Monday’s rally and spoke to the nurses union via bullhorn.
Though Knopp declined to comment on the hospital’s proposal, he said he was concerned about any actions that might negatively affect patients.
“We as the community want to see patient care put first,” he said.
Photo taken by Erin Foote Marlowe