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Daily Hampshire Gazette: Merger, contract talks in air, nurses picket at Cooley Dickinson

Merger, contract talks in air, nurses picket at Cooley Dickinson
Staff Writer

Cooley Dickinson Hospital nurses and supporters staged an informational picket to bring attention to their contract negotiations.

NORTHAMPTON – Amid uncertainty about whether and when Cooley Dickinson Hospital will change hands, registered nurses took to the picket lines Wednesday, saying they are worried they could lose protections and benefits if new owners take over.

Meanwhile, though hospital officials have acknowledged they are exploring an affiliation with a larger institution, an administrator Wednesday said a merger or acquisition could be in the hospital’s future.

Dianne Cutillo, senior director of public affairs at the hospital, said that in today’s era of consolidation in the health care industry, "clinical affiliation" with another institution would no longer be sufficient, which is why Cooley Dickinson is looking at arrangements in which a larger partner could become an owner.

"As the health care world is changing, and Massachusetts is changing, we can’t do as well on our own as we can with a larger partner," Cutillo said.

She said Cooley Dickinson has been exploring options with Baystate Health, based in Springfield, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and Vanguard Health, which operates hospitals in several states. A decision could come at the end of November, Cutillo said.

The informational picket was slated to be a one-day event to build public eduction and support as hospital administrators and the union representing Cooley Dickinson nurses negotiate over the terms of a new contract, according to representatives from the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

There are three main sticking points in negotiations: the inclusion of "successor language" to ensure contract provisions are respected in the event of an ownership change; retirement plans; and staffing levels.

Amelia Provencal, 26, a registered nurse who works in the childbirth unit and was walking the picket line cradling her baby son, David, said she worries that nurses could lose hard-won protections and benefits if new owners took over.

"I’m worried we wouldn’t even have a contract," she said.

Nurses on the picket line said they were concerned that the hospital’s proposals to offer less expensive retirement plans to new hires would leave some employees with less stable retirements.

Hospital officials say they must find less costly ways to offer benefits to their staff.

Provencal said a reliable pension "is always preferable."

Peter Danielson, a nurse in the telemetry unit who has worked at Cooley Dickinson for 19 years, said he believes employees who go out of their way to do a good job for the hospital "deserve some form of pension at the end" that maintains the stability of the current pension plan. With plans that are tied to the stock market, he said, "you can wind up with nothing."

Madelyn Breen, who said she’d worked at Cooley Dickinson for 42 years and still works on a per diem basis, said she wasn’t picketing for herself, "but for the people coming along behind." The issue was one of being able to have "a dignified retirement," several of the nurses said.

Others said they had come out to picket primarily because of staffing issues related to the core of their jobs – patient care.

"I’m not so apprehensive about it," Carol Ahearn said, when asked if she worries about a possible ownership change at Cooley Dickinson.

"I go to work and take care of patients," said Ahearn, who has worked at the hospital for 33 years and cares for patients in the medical-surgical unit.

In that context, Ahearn said, her main concern is that layoffs and attrition at the hospital in recent years have reduced the staff of secretaries and nursing assistants, thereby adding to the nurses’ responsibilities.

"We’re doing everything for the patient," she said, including bathing and toileting chores, and sometimes that means nurses feel they can’t attend to every need as quickly as they’d like.

"I feel the stress," Ahearn said, though she said she makes sure the patients don’t.

Patti Williams, an MNA negotiator who was on the picket line, said that while Cooley Dickinson continues to provide good care, the standard should be that patients get "what they need when they need it."

Williams said staffing that can handle patient care as long as nothing goes wrong isn’t adequate. The MNA, and its parent organization, National Nurses United, have in the past supported specific staff ratios that would determine the number of patients a nurse cares for.

Carol Smith, chief nursing officer at Cooley Dickinson, said in a statement that the hospital makes staffing decisions daily, taking unexpected circumstances into account.

Mandated staffing, Smith said, "does not take into account individual patient needs, the skill level and expertise of particular nurses, nor the availability of non-nursing personnel to perform some non-clinical tasks."