Nurses from St. Charles Bend will hold a rally Wednesday night to bolster community support for their negotiations of a new contract with the hospital.

The current contract, which covers some 900 nurses at the Bend hospital, was set to expire on July 1, but both sides agreed to continue operating under the existing contract while negotiations were underway. The contract does not cover the nurses at the St. Charles hospitals in Redmond, Madras or Prineville.

The nurses union is seeking to change language around staffing policies at the hospital and to lower the cost of health insurance for nurses covered under the contract and other employees at the hospital.

In 2017, the Oregon Nurses Association asked the state to investigate whether St. Charles was following state laws when the hospital required its nurses to cover the patients of other nurses when they went on meal or rest breaks. That could effectively double a nurse’s patient load for that time. The Oregon Health Authority identified 101 staffing issues, mostly clerical in nature. The hospital submitted a plan for how to address the issues, but nurses feel the issue has yet to be fixed.

“We’re more than a year out, and that has not been resolved,” said Kevin Mealy, communications director for the union. “We think patients deserve a quicker resolution.”

The nurses have also raised concerns that the hospital is using nurses trained for one unit to cover shortfalls in other units. That could leave a trauma nurse caring for patients recovering from a hip replacement, Mealy said.

“While our nurses are incredible, they’re not necessarily interchangeable,” he said.

The nurses are also pushing back against a proposed increase in health insurance costs for the upcoming year.

“We have reasonable insurance in general, but it’s very costly to the employees,” said Megan Hanson, a nurse who works on the orthopedic and neurological floor at St. Charles.

The union is pressing the hospital to increase wages and reduce health insurance costs for employees such as housekeeping and other support staff, who aren’t covered by the nurses’ contract.

“That directly affects their ability to pay for their mortgage, to pay their rent, to buy their groceries, to pay their utilities,” Hanson said. “(Bend is) a wonderful place to live, but we have to stay with the growing standard so they can be able to live here too.”

St. Charles officials had an optimistic view of the negotiations, saying that the 11 bargaining sessions so far have resulted in “great dialogue” between the parties. The two sides have scheduled bargaining sessions through November, including two at the end of this month.

“We’re actively negotiating a contract,” said Debbie Robinson, chief of nursing at St Charles Bend. “We both look forward to having a contract that we can ratify by the end of November.”

Nurses involved in the negotiations, however, painted a less rosy picture.

“I would say there is lip service paid to wanting to hear our concerns, and then generally ignoring every solution that we propose,” said David Hilderbrand, a nurse and ONA bargaining unit chair at St. Charles.

Neither side believed that a work stoppage might be in play, but Hilderbrand warned that conditions at the hospital now could affect patient safety as much as a walk-out.

“We’ve been very, very careful and thoughtful in not proposing anything we can’t show works better in other places,” he said. “There are only bad choices for our community and our nurses if the hospital can’t move in our direction.”

St. Charles officials maintained that patient safety is always the hospital’s top priority, including in its negotiations with the nurses.

“We hear that message and we take it very seriously,” Robinson said.

The hospital has faced financial challenges in recent years, and last year implemented pay cuts for its salaried employees. Nurses covered under the contract negotiated with the union, however, were not affected by those cuts. The hospital’s financial situation rebounded in late 2017 and early 2018, and the hospital was able to reverse those cuts.

Hilderbrand challenged the notion that St. Charles is dealing with financial constraints and couldn’t afford to invest more in its nurses and other employees.

“If you’re in an up market in one of the fastest growing cities in the country, you have a monopoly or a 94 percent market share and you can’t make your books work,” he said, “then I would say that that points to administrative incompetence and nothing else.”

The nurses maintain they are fighting for improvement in patient safety and good quality of care, and that addressing their concerns will keep skilled and experienced staff from leaving the community for greener pastures.

“As a general rule, what’s good for nurses is good for patients,” Hilderbrand said.

— Reporter: 541-633-2162, mhawryluk@bendbulletin.com

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