Thursday, June 27, 2002

Hospital braces for nurses strike

Patients, ambulances diverted

By Tim Bonfield,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        University Hospital will close 316 beds, stop delivering babies and discontinue many other services if its nurses go on strike Monday.

        In fact, even though negotiations continue, the hospital's emergency department already has started diverting ambulances while hospitals and doctors have started asking some patients to reschedule surgeries that had been set for Monday.

        “We are doing everything we can to avoid a strike. But to protect patient safety, we must be prepared for the possibility,” said Gail Myers, spokeswoman for the Health Alliance of Greater Cincinnati, which operates University Hospital.

        University Hospital provides the Tristate's most sophisticated trauma unit, most of the city's organ transplant services, and by far the most care to the poor and uninsured. It also is the only Tristate acute care hospital with union nurses.

        If the 884 members of the Registered Nurses Association go on strike, it would happen in the middle of a citywide hospital nursing shortage. The disruption to health services will be felt far beyond the doors of University Hospital.

        “We've had very few situations in Cincinnati where a hospital has had to suddenly discontinue services, be it a fire, a tornado or anything else,” said Colleen O'Toole, vice president of the Greater Cincinnati Health Council.

        “We know that with capacity being relatively tight already at other hospitals, (the strike) is not something that can be easily absorbed,” Ms. O'Toole said. “But the hospitals are working together. And with the notice other hospitals have had, it's going to be easier than it would have been.”

        University Hospital has started taking several steps to empty its facility before a strike occurs.

        Other Health Alliance hospitals — Christ, Jewish, Fort Hamilton and the two St. Luke hospitals in Northern Kentucky — will take all the University Hospital patients they can handle.

        Patients also will be routed to non-Health Alliance hospitals, but it remains hard to predict how many.

        Several hospitals are granting emergency admitting privileges to University Hospital doctors so they can legally treat patients who get transferred. Some patients from northern suburbs could be routed to hospitals in Dayton, Ohio, Ms. O'Toole said.

        University Hospital plans to keep 30 medical-surgical beds open, along with 12 intensive-care beds and eight to 12 psychiatric inpatient beds. Two operating rooms — out of a total of 22 — will stay open to support trauma care and transplant surgeries. The hospital's burn unit also will stay open.

        After Monday, University Hospital has made arrangements to hire some nurses from Denver-based U.S. Nursing Corp., a company that specializes in supplying nurses during strikes. But even with those nurses, the hospital does not expect to run at full capacity should a strike continue, Ms. Myers said.

        The chances of a strike occurring remain a matter of speculation. While the contract runs through Sunday, and the nurses gave notice June 18 of their intent to strike, nurses do not have to go on strike Monday, even if no deal is reached.

        RNA co-chairman Mike Haas was in negotiations Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.

        Mr. Haas previously has said nurse concerns include pay, mandatory overtime policies and staffing levels. Neither side is discussing in public the specifics of demands and counteroffers.

        Tristate fire departments already are feeling the effects. Some noted that Christ Hospital already seemed crowded Wednesday.

        At the Cincinnati Fire Department, a memo from Chief Robert Wright went out Tuesday alerting paramedics of the potential strike

        “Our transport personnel may encounter an informational picket line, but it is important to know that the nurses are not yet on strike. Fire administration and union executive board members agree that throughout this event patient care must come first.”

        Last year, about 770 nurses in Youngstown, Ohio, went on strike for 78 days against Forum Health, a system that includes Northside Medical Center and Tod Children's Hospital. A key issue in that strike was mandatory overtime.

        In June last year, six hospitals in Minneapolis-St. Paul employing about 7,700 nurses narrowly avoided the nation's largest-ever nursing strike by agreeing to provide 20 percent pay raises.

        University Hospital has established a hotline for people with questions about strike arrangements: 585-6162.

       Reporter Jane Prendergast contributed.



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