Thousands of registered nurse and health care worker members of National Nurses United (NNU), the country’s largest union and professional association of RNs, will be holding hundreds of socially distanced events in more than 19 states and the District of Columbia on Wednesday to demand that their hospital employers “put patients first above profit motives in how patient care is delivered,” the group said in a press release. NNU says the hospital industry’s response to the coronavirus has “demonstrated to nurses and patients that they may attempt to implement their long-desired goal of restructuring the industry to prioritize profits — a direction that nurses and health care workers warn is bad for patient and worker safety.”
The events will launch a year of contract negotiations that include corporate hospital chains in the United States, including HCA Healthcare, Sutter Health, and Dignity Health, which is owned by CommonSpirit. Together, the contract negotiations cover nearly 45,000 registered nurses and respiratory therapists, aides, technicians, and other health care workers across the country.
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A prime focus of the talks will be improving health and safety and infectious diseases provisions in their contracts that nurses and health care workers say are necessary to protect themselves, their patients, and their communities. “It is apparent from the unsafe, crisis conditions nurses and health care workers were and still are forced to work under during the initial and subsequent waves of COVID-19 that hospitals, whose decisions are driven by the bottom line, failed to take appropriate action during this pandemic,” the union said.
“We learned the hard way through this Covid-19 pandemic that our hospital employers do not value the essential nursing care we risk our lives daily to give,” said Jenn Caldwell, an RN at Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo. “Instead, they view us as disposable. They found every excuse to deny us the personal protective equipment, the staffing, the testing, the contact tracing, the sick leave, the resources, and all the other proper infection control measures we know we need to stay safe and keep our patients safe. And we all know they have the money to spend on it! So through these negotiations, we hope to fix this and, most importantly, make sure we do things right going forward.”
So far, NNU has documented nearly 3,000 health care worker deaths in the United States due to COVID-19; that number includes more than 310 RN deaths. NNU noted these numbers are a drastic undercount of true health care worker mortality figures.
Another important issue that nurses will address during negotiations is the racial disparities in health care outcomes they observe daily. “It has been known for a long time that there are racial differences in health care, but this pandemic has really exposed them for all to see,” said Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN and an NNU and California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee president. “We will be leading an effort to insist the health care industry stop this terrible scourge of systemic racism in the delivery of health care.”
NNU alleges that nurses who work for HCA Healthcare, based in Tennessee, at facilities in Florida, Texas, Missouri, Kansas, North Carolina, California, and Nevada say HCA has failed to provide them optimal PPE, safe staffing, testing, contact tracing, and proper infection control. NNU says, “HCA has cut back or eliminated services during the pandemic, such as its closure of labor and delivery services at Regional Medical Center in San Jose, Calif., leaving that community’s mothers without a place to give birth to their babies.” A recent nationwide study by NNU of hospitals’ charges compared to costs found that six of the top 10 hospitals with the highest charge-to-cost ratios were HCA facilities. Some 10,000 registered nurses at HCA facilities are renegotiating their contracts this year, and 2,000 nurses at Mission Hospital in Asheville, NC will be bargaining their first contract.
Likewise, about 14,000 nurses with Dignity Health, which is owned by parent company CommonSpirit, in more than 29 hospitals in California and Nevada, and more than 8,000 RNs and health care techs at 15 Sutter hospitals in California (two of them newly unionized) will be bargaining contracts in 2021.
“This pandemic clearly highlights how the corporate health care industry willfully refuses to prioritize patients,” said Jane Sandoval, RN, who works for Sutter Health in San Francisco and is a California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee board member. “As nurses, we put patients first both in the hospital and in the community, and this means we need proper staffing, PPE, and to ensure that every patient receives the highest quality of care, regardless of their ability to pay.”