2009 News

Public nurses’ layoffs decried Critics: Illnesses could spread

04.14.2009

By Nick Kotsopoulos TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
nkotsopoulos@telegram.com


WORCESTER —  It was National Public Health Week last week, but the city’s public health nurses were in no mood for celebrating.

Five of the nurses, including the nursing unit chief, were recently informed they were losing their jobs because of municipal budget cuts. Their layoffs, expected to take effect later this month, will leave two public health nurses covering the second-largest city in New England.

Overall staffing in the city’s Public Health Division, meanwhile, is being reduced from 20 to five.

"We were completely blindsided by this," said Debra Vescera, one of five pink-slipped public health nurses. "We had no idea this was going to happen. We’re still trying to adjust to the reality of the decision made by the city manager, but more importantly we’re very concerned about what will happen to our patients and the community we serve."

Critics of City Manager Michael V. O’Brien’s budget decision to virtually dismantle the Public Health Division and all but eliminate the public health nurse staff contend it will increase the risk for the spread of communicable diseases in Worcester, and leave vulnerable children and adults without access to immunizations and other health screening services.

"While everyone understands we are in a fiscal crisis, this decision places hundreds, if not thousands, of our residents at risk for harm and leaves the most vulnerable in our city stranded without necessary care," said Anne Cappabianca, chairwoman of the bargaining unit of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents the city’s public health nurses.

Unlike hospital nurses, who treat people who are already sick, the job of public health nurses, is to prevent disease and illness through education, outreach, and health and wellness programs. When public health nurses do their job, they are able to keep people out of the hospital.

"We’re the modern-day Florence Nightingale," said Patricia A. Bruchmann, chief public health nurse in the city’s Office of Public Health Nursing, and among the five nurses losing their jobs.

The public health nurses have a long tradition of service to the community that goes back to 1899. Some of the many preventive and educational health services they provide are:

  • Investigating and following up on all reportable communicable diseases. During the past year, they investigated 300 communicable disease cases, including tuberculosis cases that required skin testing hundreds of people.
  • Offering tuberculosis testing and treatment clinics to patients on tuberculosis medications. They track at least 100 residents each month who may have been exposed to TB and make more than 35 visits each month to homes of residents with active TB.
  • Preventing the spread of diseases by immunizing vulnerable segments of the population.• Participating in wellness clinics, including for blood pressure, podiatry and influenza.

"We are the safety net for those people who fall through the cracks because they are uninsured or unable to get primary care at local health centers," Ms. Bruchmann said. "We also provided them with answers to their health questions. If there was anything slightly related to a medical issue, the public health nurses get the call. When we’re gone, where are these people going to go or get their information?"

Michael Gilleberto, staff assistant for operations in the city manager’s executive office, said the city intends to sustain core operations of the Public Health Division, even with a reduced staff and two nurses. The city is looking to form partnerships with local hospitals, health providers and colleges and universities that have expertise in the public health field, he said.

"Some of these institutions have been at the table with the city for some time, and we look forward to including them even further in our public health initiatives," Mr. Gilleberto said. "The best of public health includes people from all fields, not just government. It’s our intention to proceed in collaboration with them …"

FPO