Saint Vincent Hospital said Wednesday that it will sharply cut back services, forcing patients to wait longer or go elsewhere for care, as a nurses’ strike that began nearly five months ago drags on without resolution.
The Worcester hospital said it will close 80 inpatient beds, amounting to 30 percent of its medical and surgical capacity. It also will shutter 25 percent of its critical care beds and half of its beds for patients with psychiatric illness.
Patients needing certain surgeries and procedures will face delays as the hospital closes a quarter of its operating and procedure rooms. The cuts begin Monday.
Hospital officials, who have hired hundreds of temporary replacement nurses while their staff nurses picket outside, said it’s no longer sustainable for them to keep all services open. Rising rates of COVID-19 across the country have increased demand for travel nurses, making it harder for Saint Vincent to retain temporary staff.
“It’s been an incredibly difficult decision because it will impact access to patient care,” said Carolyn Jackson, Saint Vincent’s chief executive.
“We believe the [union] is being very irresponsible and needlessly prolonging the strike,” Jackson added. “There does not seem to be an end in sight.”
She said the cutbacks will require patients to wait longer in the emergency department before they can be admitted, and some may have to be transferred to other hospitals.
“I’m very hopeful we’ll be able to restore them,” Jackson said of the cuts, “but how quickly we can restore them and to what extent really depends on how quickly the strike comes to a close.”
She declined to say how much the strike is costing Saint Vincent, which is owned by Tenet Healthcare, a Dallas-based public company that operates 65 hospitals nationwide.
The Massachusetts Nurses Association represents 700 nurses who have been on strike for 145 days over concerns about staffing and other issues. The union said it was dismayed by the hospital’s move to slash patient services and accused hospital leaders of trying to intimidate nurses.
“It’s pretty unfortunate that they would come out with this about five days before we’re heading back to the table for good-faith negotiations,” said Marlena Pellegrino, a nurse who cochairs the local bargaining unit.
Pellegrino, who on Wednesday marked her 35th anniversary as a Saint Vincent nurse, said hospital leaders should have listened to nurses when they raised concerns about staffing levels over the past two years. “They could have avoided this strike,” she said. “This could be settled.”
Union leaders argue that nurses are overworked, compromising patient safety, and want their labor contract to include language that limits patient assignments to four or five patients per nurse in medical and surgical units.
Jackson accused the union of pushing an aggressive agenda to increase nurse staffing that is out of line with staffing policies at other hospitals.
Saint Vincent, with 290 licensed beds, sits a couple miles from UMass Memorial Medical Center, which has 749 beds and could see an uptick in patients as Saint Vincent closes some services. UMass Memorial has begun reviewing staffing levels and emergency protocols in preparation for that contingency, Dr. Michael Gustafson, president of the medical center, said in a statement.
“We are actively reviewing potential impacts to UMass Memorial Medical Center and preparing to manage any influx in patient volume that we may experience as a result of fewer beds being available in Worcester starting next week,” Gustafson said. “We are committed to delivering high-quality care for those in need and will work with our regional health care partners to ensure that takes place.”
The strike at Saint Vincent, which began March 8, is the second-longest in state history and the longest nurses strike nationally in over 15 years.