WORCESTER, Mass. – “Our administrators have no understanding of what these COVID patients need, and have no idea what it is like to be responsible for these patients, knowing they are not receiving the care and attention they need at the worst time in their lives,” said Dominique Muldoon RN, a nurse struggling to provide safe patient care on a busy COVID floor at St. Vincent Hospital as the for-profit owner has embarked on an aggressive plan to furlough and reduce staff at the facility during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic surge.
On April 16, Tenet Healthcare, over the objections of the 840 nurses at the hospital, embarked on a concerted effort to boost its profits by furloughing staff, and employing daily staff reductions of nurses, nurses aides and other valuable caregivers, all as part of a national plan to “maximize our cash position,” according to Tenet’s national CEO.
Since the staff reduction plan has been implemented, nurses have filed more than 50 reports, documenting specific incidents when the lack of staff and resources jeopardized the health and safety of their patients, the majority of them patients with COVID-19, requiring a higher level of care and attention. The hospital has eliminated previously agreed upon additional staffing necessary to support the increased need for stringent infection precaution measures and to provide for the increased complex care needs of COVID-19 patients.
The Hospital has implemented daily cancelation of nurses and other staff reductions, made significant cuts in nurses aides, unit secretaries and other staff who provide essential life sustaining care such as feeding and bathing patients, communicating with families and providing other important means of support.
All of these changes increase the workload of nurses and other staff; and limit the time nurses have with patients who require careful monitoring ant timely responses to changes in their condition to ensure their safety. As a result, nurses report patients who wait too long for needed treatments and medications, patients who are at increased risk for falls, patients left alone for too long, frightened and unattended with no family support.
“In thirty years of nursing, I have never witnessed the conditions I am seeing now at this hospital, nor have I been more ashamed to work for a corporation that would treat our patients this way,” said Marlena Pelllegrino, RN, co-chair of the nurses local bargaining unit and a nurse who saw her unit closed and her staff dispersed. “Our nurses are appalled and disgusted by the lack of humanity shown by Tenet, yet I am proud to say we come to work every day, despite these obstacles, to do whatever we can for our patients.”
As the hospital has closed floors, and cut staff, nurses in the emergency department report the need to board patients in the ED, sometimes for hours.
“This is a travesty and totally unnecessary, said Beckett Augat, an emergency department nurse at the hospital. “The other day, management sent four nurses home in the middle of our shift, and two hours later, we were bombed with patients, yet they wouldn’t call them back, So our patients suffered, waiting longer for care, and some waiting on a stretcher for a bed that should be staffed and open to take them. All the while our CEO is up in her board room looking at her spread sheets.”
The nurses are not alone in opposing Tenet’s staffing cuts. A few days after the hospital announced its furloughs, a coalition of residents and community supporters organized a Car Caravan for Caregivers, surrounding the hospital with vehicles sporting signs of support for the nurses and opposition to Tenet’s corporate greed.
By contrast, just a mile away, UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester has not cut staffing levels, and has worked with the nurses to ensure they have the staff support they need to provide appropriate care during the COVID surge.
These changes by Tenet followed an announcement by Gov. Charlie Baker that the Massachusetts healthcare industry will have access to more than $1 billion in state and federal funding. Tenet’s corporate leaders in Dallas have also touted their plan to use furloughs and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars from the federal stimulus package to “to ensure we were focused on maximizing our cash position” – not to improve care for patients. Tenet reported this month that it had $500 million “cash in hand” and access to a $1 billion line of credit, according to the Dallas Morning News.
”We have made clear to management that we oppose any efforts to furlough, cancel, or otherwise remove from service any frontline staff during this crucial phase of the pandemic,” said Marie Ritacco, RN, MNA Vice President and a PACU nurse at the hospital who led the effort to have her unit serve as an alternate ICU. “Their decision to move ahead with this plan is nothing short of shameful, and a callous display of corporate greed and medical malpractice.”
Founded in 1903, the Massachusetts Nurses Association is the largest union of registered nurses in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Its 23,000 members advance the nursing profession by fostering high standards of nursing practice, promoting the economic and general welfare of nurses in the workplace, projecting a positive and realistic view of nursing, and by lobbying the Legislature and regulatory agencies on health care issues affecting nurses and the public.