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The Associated Press June 8, 2010, 4:28PM ET

Minn. hospitals say ready for nurses' 1-day strike

Leaders of 14 Twin Cities hospitals facing a one-day nurses strike sought to reassure the public on Tuesday that they have plans in place to operate safely, but union nurses questioned that.

The chief medical officers said at a news conference that they were training replacement nurses ahead of Thursday's planned strike. The group later said more than 2,800 temporary nurses would be available.

Dr. Penny Wheeler of Allina Hospitals said the emergency rooms and childbirth wards of all 14 hospitals will be fully staffed with nurses. She said the replacement nurses will be as qualified as those on strike.

While some hospitals are taking steps to reduce the number of patients they have, mostly by rescheduling elective surgeries, others plan to operate normally. Patients need to call their doctors for specifics.

Talks between the hospitals and the Minnesota Nurses Association broke down over the union's request for rigid nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, which it claims will improve patient safety, and the hospital's proposal to reduce future pension payments.

The hospitals claim the union's staffing proposals would increase costs by $250 million a year without improving patient safety. The hospitals also say that even with their changes, a nurse with 25 years of experience would receive $3,000 a month at retirement.

Wheeler said the hospitals have plans in place to bring in the replacement nurses some time ahead of the planned walkout at 7 a.m. Thursday to assure a smooth hand-off from striking nurses to the replacements.

Dr. Kevin Croston, chief medical officer at North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale, said there will also be more doctors and other medical staff members around the hospitals just in case.

The hospitals don't plan to use the replacement nurses on Friday, Wheeler said, and the regular nurses will return to work as they are needed. "We value our nurses and want them on the job," she said.

She declined to comment on when contract negotiations might resume.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, the nurses union distributed a list of more than 50 incidents that they said demonstrated dangerously short staffing. But the union would not allow the names of reporting nurses to be used, saying they might be punished by hospitals.

Croston and Dr. Jim Breitenbucher, vice president of medical affairs for Fairview hospitals, said reviews of medical mistakes in their systems in the past few years had found no instances where short-staffing was the cause.

Cindy Olson, a nurse at St. John's Hospital in Maplewood, said at a news conference that she expected the hospitals would say they will be adequately staffed on Thursday, but she said she thought it would be worse than current staffing levels.

"We are hoping that a one-day strike would send a message to the public and the hospitals that we're really serious," Olson said. "If it doesn't send a message, we'll have to go from there."

Wheeler and the other medical officers said the number of replacement nurses hired for Thursday was far fewer than the 12,000 nurses going on strike because most weren't scheduled to work that day, most work part-time and patient counts in some hospital are already down.

The Minnesota Board of Nursing has approved 1,953 temporary permits for out-of-state nurses in May and June. Rene Cronquist, assistant director of practice and policy, said that was "significantly larger" than normal.

The hospitals declined to talk about how much the replacement nurses will be paid, but in Web advertisements from two large staffing agencies - Healthsource Global Staffing and U.S Nursing - said they were offering between $1,600 and $2,224 for one day of work and one day of orientation.

The nurses won't be striking at two of the largest hospitals in the metro area - Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and Regions Hospital in St. Paul - nor some of the major suburban hospitals, including Woodwinds in Woodbury.

Those hospitals are bracing for extra patients. HCMC is preparing for a 20 percent to 30 percent spike on Thursday, said spokeswoman Christine Hill, which is about another 100 people. She said HCMC will be able to handle the influx with its existing staff.

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