Bloomberg News

California Nurses Say Strike Champions Patients Over Profits

January 04, 2012

(Adds Long Beach hospital comment in 11th paragraph.)

Dec. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Efren Garza and Margie Keenan, two California nurses with 70 years of combined experience, said they’re skipping work today for the sake of their patients.

Garza, employed in Berkeley, said if his bosses eliminate sick leave, nurses will come to work ill. Keenan, who has been at the same Long Beach hospital for 38 years, said limiting staff size and time off may cause overworked nurses to make potentially deadly medical mistakes.

Keenan and Garza are among 6,000 nurses taking part in a one-day strike today in California against proposed benefit cuts at hospitals in the San Francisco Bay Area and Long Beach. Nurses in New York City are pushing the same message and will walk out at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center on Jan. 3. Hospitals say they’re bracing for reduced federal and state funding and added mandates under the U.S. health-care law.

“The nurses have to be the advocates for safe patient care during cuts,” said Garza, who is employed by a hospital run by the Sutter Health system. “It’s a national trend.”

About 1,000 nurses lined both sides of the street in front of Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, said DeAnn McEwen, who protested as cars honked in support. In Berkeley, nurses arrived at 7 a.m. local time in front of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center holding signs that said “Sutter is the Grinch” and chanting “Sutter, Sutter, you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side” and “union busting, that’s disgusting.’

Sutter Pay

Sutter pays nurses an average $136,000 salary and a pension plan worth $84,000, said Bill Gleeson, a spokesman for the group. At the same time, the system is facing reimbursement cuts from taxpayer-supported health plans, costly new mandates from the U.S. health-care law signed in 2010, about $400 million in spending to extend its electronic records program, and almost as much to bring its buildings into line with California’s earthquake safety standards, he said.

The overhaul President Barack Obama signed last year will trim $157 billion in U.S. payments to hospitals through 2019, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office. The hospital industry agreed to the cuts, figuring the loss would be offset by about 32 million potential patients who are expected to gain insurance coverage after 2014.

Medical providers, though, didn’t count on further reductions as Congress tackled the growing national debt this year. In 2013, Medicare payments will be trimmed 2 percent. New Medicare initiatives aimed at reducing medical errors and preventable readmissions also threaten payments if hospitals can’t improve service.

‘Not Hurting Financially’

“It’s their pretext to make a cut,” said Joe Lindsay, a negotiator for union National Nurses United, representing workers at Alta Bates, the largest hospital facing the strike. “They’re not hurting financially.”

When nurses strike, the hospitals must find temporary replacements to continue operating.

Today’s work action cost Long Beach Memorial Medical Center “millions,” said Myra Gregorian, vice president of human resources.

Nurses’ strikes in New York between 1984 and 2004 increased in-hospital deaths by 19.4 percent and 30-day readmission by 6.5 percent, according to a March 2010 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“This is going to cost the country,” Garza said.

A patient died the weekend of Sept. 22, the last time nurses went on strike at Sutter hospitals, said Kami Lloyd, a Sutter spokeswoman.

Teresa Mullen, 36, is striking today in front of Alta Bates’s Oakland campus. She said, this time, the hospital can call specific nurses back to work if there’s an emergency.

Feeling Anxious

“We absolutely feel anxious to leave our patients,” she said. “Ultimately this will help them.”

Eleanor Bates, 84, went to Alta Bates for her husband, who was seeing a cardiologist. She remembers a time he needed back surgery during a strike in 2006, when replacement nurses were “frazzled.”

“It’s not right because they don’t know the patients,” she said.

At the hospital in Long Beach, an estimated 30 percent of nurses crossed the picket line to serve their patients, especially in areas like pediatric cancer care and the emergency room, said Susan Melvin, the associate chief medical officer, in a phone interview.

Hospital Consolidation

Sutter, like many of the industry’s hospital systems, expanded through acquiring sites and buildings, spending about $8 billion on capital projects since 2000, Gleeson said. As hospital companies grow, they focus on providing profitable services for less money, which isn’t good for patients, said Karen Higgins, co-president of NNU.

“Consolidation is a significant trend that’s going to continue,” said Tom Gallucci, an analyst with Lazard Capital Markets in New York. “If hospitals consolidate into a system, you can have increased flexibility with staffing.”

The strike involves 2,000 registered nurses at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and Miller Children’s Hospital and 4,000 who work at eight of Sutter’s Bay Area hospitals, including Alta Bates.

Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Governor Jerry Brown, said he had no comment on the nurses’ strike. Spokesmen for state Assembly Speaker John Perez, a Los Angeles Democrat, and Senate President Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, didn’t return calls or declined to comment on the work stoppage.

New York Nurses

About 6,000 unionized nurses at three New York City hospitals may stage their biggest strike in at least a decade if an agreement on health benefits can’t be reached. Nurses at the three hospitals have been working without a contract since the beginning of 2011, said Mark Genovese, a spokesman for the New York State Nurses’ Association.

The 1,300 nurses at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt gave notice they will strike after an 18-hour bargaining session that ended early today. Nurses wouldn’t agree to having no raise, along with increased health care and medication costs, said Ralph Spencer, a nurse who got home at 6 a.m. after bargaining.

Jeff Jacomowitz, a spokesman for St. Luke’s, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nurses at Mount Sinai Hospital and Montefiore Medical Center will strike if they don’t reach an agreement. The nurses will give 10 days’ notice before walking out, Genovese said. Nurses at the three hospitals work about 3,800 patient beds and handle hundreds of thousands of annual visits.

“My concern is that this is only going to get worse,” said Higgins, who is a nurse in Massachusetts. “Everywhere, you’re worried. I don’t think it ever leaves your mind anymore.”

--With assistance from Alex Wayne in Washington and James Nash in Sacramento. Editors: Chris Staiti, Bruce Rule

To contact the reporter on this story: Sarah Frier in New York at sfrier1@bloomberg.net; Danielle Kucera in San Francisco at dkucera6@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net


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