NORTH ADAMS, Mass.—The registered nurses of North Adams Regional Hospital (NARH) represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) filed a lawsuit today in federal court seeking judicial enforcement of a recent arbitration order prohibiting the hospital from admitting "more patients than nurses can safely care for." For a copy of the complaint, or the arbitrator’s ruling, call David Schildmeier at 781.249.0430.
The lawsuit, which was filed in Federal District Court in Springfield, claims the hospital continues to violate union contract language and a ruling issued in March by an independent arbitrator to "cease and desist" unsafe staffing practices at the hospital. The registered nurses’ complaint is based on numerous instances over the last three months where the hospital ignored their objections and continued to inappropriately assign patients when the nurses felt it was unsafe based on their professional standards of practices. In other cases, the hospital assigned patients to nurses who were not properly oriented to deliver the care the patients required.
"It is a shame that we have to go to court to ensure that the hospital honors its legal commitment to provide appropriate patient care," said Mary McConnell, RN, chairperson of the nurses’ local bargaining unit at NARH. "While our administrators stated publicly in the press that they were committed to abiding by our contract and the arbitrator’s decision, they continue to inappropriately admit patients to specific units, thus jeopardizing the health of those patients."
The arbitrator’s ruling drew national attention and was the first of its kind to deal with the issue of RN staffing and a hospital’s obligation to assign patients based on registered nurses’ ability to meet their professional practice standards.
In his 30-page decision, Arbitrator Michael Stutz ruled that the hospital violated the nurses’ rights because "unsafe staffing was allowed by the hospital to occur without cropping admissions or transferring patients and without adding another nurse. Individual nurses were injured by having to work under unsafe conditions."
"We believe this ruling should have been a positive step towards making our hospital a model for patient safety," said Robin Simonetti, co-chair of the nurses’ local bargaining unit. "We are taking this action to ensure that it is. No patient deserves to be cared for in an environment where their nurse can’t deliver care safely."
The complaint is based on a number specific breaches to the arbitrator’s "cease and desist order" in the form of official unsafe staffing reports filed between March 2 and June 1, 2005, which occurred in the emergency department, the same day surgery unit, the radiology department and the medical/surgical unit. The medical surgical unit was the floor that was at the center of the original arbitration decision.
"Nurses file these reports only if they believe the patient assignment jeopardizes the safety of their patients," Simonetti explained. "In one instance, a nurse was transferred to another unit to monitor a patient undergoing a very specialized procedure for which she had no orientation, no experience, and with no hospital policy to provide her with any guidance."
According to the NARH nurses, the key solution to the problems at NARH is simple: have a sufficient number of registered nurses to allow staff to properly care for patients. In each of the incidents that led to the complaint, the hospital continued to admit and/or assign patients beyond the capacity of existing staff.
Now that the lawsuit has been filed, both sides will be required to file briefs on the matter. At some point in the coming weeks, attorneys will be called before a federal judge to argue their case, following which the judge will issue a ruling.
"Our first and only concern is the patients we care for," said McConnell. "They are the ones who have the most to lose if the hospital continues with their irresponsible practices."