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Nurses at Holy Family voice staffing concerns

Nurses union members and backers held a Dec. 10 vigil across the street from Methuen’s Holy Family Hospital, one of six hospitals Steward Health Care acquired in 2010 in buying the Caritas Christi Health Care system.

Jim Davis /Globe Staff/File 2010

Nurses union members and backers held a Dec. 10 vigil across the street from Methuen’s Holy Family Hospital, one of six hospitals Steward Health Care acquired in 2010 in buying the Caritas Christi Health Care system.

Nurses at Holy Family Hospital are seeking to raise public awareness of their efforts to get management to address what they say is a need for more staffing at the Methuen facility.

Staffing levels are a key point of contention in the negotiations that began a year ago for the nurses’ first union contract, according to members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents 370 registered nurses at Holy Family.

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On Dec. 10, union members and supporters held a candlelight vigil across from the entrance to highlight their attempt to get language on staffing levels incorporated into the contract.

“This issue is close to our hearts as both nurses and as members of the Greater Methuen community,” Gayle Burke, a registered nurse and cochairwoman of the bargaining unit at Holy Family, said in a statement that night.

“We are here tonight as tribute to this: that safe patient care is our concern, and that safe patient care is the best thing we can offer this community.”

The nurses, who voted to unionize in July 2011, contend that nurses across the facility are being forced to care for too many patients at once, a practice they say has been proven dangerous in many studies.

But Chris Murphy, a spokesman for Steward Health Care — the hospital network that owns Holy Family — said that staffing is not the union’s major concern in the negotiations.

“This entire issue is around compensation, not staffing,” said Murphy, contending that “staffing levels haven’t changed in years” and the hospital follows industry staffing standards.

Murphy said the union initially requested a 59 percent compensation increase, dropping that figure to 27 percent in a revised request.

“The state just passed a law that health care costs can’t go up by more than 3.6 percent next year,” he said. “So obviously, that type of compensation is completely in conflict with that law. We’d have to cut massive amounts of services to the city.”

David Schildmeier, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said pay was an issue in the talks, but that it is “ludicrous” to suggest staffing levels are not a major concern for the Holy Family nurses.

He said that about a month ago, “We had nurses from a variety of units come to the negotiations and tell their stories to management about how unsafe and dangerous things were getting, and asking their help in . . . improving staffing conditions.”

Founded in 1950 as Bon Secours Hospital, Holy Family Hospital is a 261-bed acute-care facility that handles 200,000 patients visits annually, according to its website.

The East Street facility is one of six hospitals that Steward Health Care acquired in 2010 when it purchased the Caritas Christi Health Care system.

Steward, owned by the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management,  operates 11 community hospitals in Massachusetts, including Merrimack Valley Hospital in Haverhill. 

Steward’s overall health care system includes more than 17,000 employees.  

Karen Powers, a member of the union negotiating team at Holy Family, said she has seen firsthand the problem of inadequate staffing through her work as a registered nurse on the hospital’s medical/surgical floors.

According to Powers, nurses on those floors take care of up to six patients at a time, and most of the time it is six patients.

“As a nurse, you want to give the best patient care you possibly can, and six patients is a lot for one nurse to have to take care of,” she said, adding that it is particularly the case when one of the patients requires a lot of attention.

“Studies show that with a better patient ratio, you have better outcomes; patients get better care,” Powers said.

The issue is also a quality of life one for nurses, she said, observing that whether nurses have five patients or six “can make a big difference in how the day goes for them.”

Powers said the union has proposed that specific staffing ratios be set in their contract at Holy Family — for instance, four patients to a nurse on the medical/surgical floors — but that management “doesn’t want to discuss it. . . . They don’t want it in the contract.”

“We want management to understand the gravity of this issue, as well as the effect it could have on the greater community if left unresolved,” Burke said in her statement. “Caring for too many patients at one time is dangerous, and it is wrong.”

But Murphy questioned why the nurses had not raised staffing as an issue in past years when the same patient-to-nurse levels were in effect.

“If their compensation request of 59 percent or 27 percent were agreed to in the contract, I think the staffing concern would go away,” Murphy said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.
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