By Mary O’KEEFE
Nurses at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital continue negotiations with the hospital’s administration; however, at this point, their patience is stretched beyond their limits and a strike is becoming more of a possibility.
This week nurses at USC VHH began wearing buttons that state they will strike to keep patients safe.
The USC VHH registered nurses voted to join the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Union in March 2014 by a 72% vote. Since then the negotiations between the nurses’ union and USC VHH have been more negative than positive, according to union representative Dinorah Williams.
In September 2014, a delegation of RNs delivered pillows and pillowcases with a petition to hospital executives. The pillows represented the nurses’ pleas for better bedding and beds. In January of this year nurses took their concerns to the community via the Harvest Market in Montrose. They gathered over 1,000 signatures from community members who showed support for the nurses.
From the beginning, nurses have voiced their dismay and disappointment at their treatment by the administrative negotiating team.
“They tell us [during negotiations and other discussions] we are not part of them, not part of USC but only VHH,” said Sandy Mulcahey with same day surgery. “My paycheck says USC.”
“Every week we tell them they have nurses that are quitting,” Williams said.
She added the nurses will talk about going on strike but that does not seem to faze the administration.
“They smile at us and [at times] have laughed in our faces,” Williams said.
“The [administration] have told us we are not sophisticated enough to be part of USC,” Mulcahey said. “When you go into [a meeting] and the head of the hospital is so condescending when you tell them [issues that are] dangerous for patient care and then to be called names and told we are not sophisticated … There have been so many times I have told them I will not sit ‘here and let you speak to me that way.’ And then they laugh in our faces … It is so frustrating.”
Part of the negotiations does deal with nurses’ pay and benefits, but the most pressing issues for the nurses, according to both Mulcahey and Williams, is the patient care.
The nurses contend that “travelers,” who are a type of temporary service, staff many of the RN positions.
“Like offices have temporary secretaries,” explained Mulcahey.
The travelers come from everywhere, even outside of the state, Williams said.
The constant turn and inconsistent care due to the travelers, according to Mulcahey, has worried doctors and nurses alike.
“The [change] has been quite dramatic,” said Dr. Michael Klein, internal medicine at USC VHH.
Klein confirms the nurses’ claims of travelers and shares in their overall concern of quality of patient care since USC acquired VHH hospital about 19 months ago.
“There is a variety of different [issues of concern],” he said.
Regarding the issue of pay, Klein said that, as a former chief of staff, he understood the nurses’ need to have a competitive salary; however, it is the quality of care that most concerns him.
“Many of the physicians have a great deal of concern,” Klein said, although he is about the only one who has publicly voiced his opinion. “[I don’t know why] other physician leaders are not [saying anything]. [Public relations] is getting worse and worse … we are not going to be able to recover from [this].”
He added USC administrators have said they were going to improve the hospital in a variety of ways which, if done, would make VHH one of the “sharpest” hospitals in Los Angeles County. Those improvements will not be completed, though, for another five to 10 years and, in the meantime, the exodus of good nurses could continue.
Additional concerns that Klein, Williams and Mulcahey have all confirmed are the closing of at least one of the on-site pharmacies and labs, and the layoffs of employees of those areas. The pharmacy at 1808 Verdugo Blvd. that is part of USC VHH had water damage last week and was closed. The note on the door reads it is temporarily closed, but the staff interviewed by CVW has stated they had been told it would not reopen.
“We are still trying to clarify whether they are going to replace the pharmacy staff they are laying off,” Klein said. “This will affect about 10,000 to 20,000 people between the two labs and pharmacy … We just learned this five days ago.”
The hospital administration confirms that some changes are underway.
“As part of an overall restructuring of the USC Health System, a recent reduction in force included 24 staff positions which were eliminated at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital. These workforce reductions included administrative and ambulatory clinical positions. The restructuring will include the medical office building pharmacies which will soon be managed by the USC School of Pharmacy,” stated Paul Craig, interim CEO USC VHH.
And now comes word of the “superbug” affecting at least one patient at USC VHH. The information was released to the staff on Tuesday.
The superbug is a term used for a bacterium that has become resistant to a normal regimen of antibiotics. Recently several patients at UCLA Ronald Reagan hospital were found to have contracted a superbug through a type of endoscope that is particularly difficult to clean. It has been reported the outbreak has killed at least two patients and infected five others at the UCLA hospital.
“A case of CRE (carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae) has been identified at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital. This patient is in isolation and is being treated now with antibiotics.
“No hospital is infection free. All superbugs live in health care environments and, in our case, this infection was not contracted through the use of a device, which has been the case at other facilities.
“At USC Verdugo Hills Hospital, we are committed to high-quality standards of patient care and safety. We are vigilant in all of our procedures and practices, and we use the latest technologies to treat and prevent infection.
“Due to patient privacy laws, we cannot speak in more detail about this case. However, we can say with confidence that this is a treatable organism, and we have all the antibiotics we need to treat this infection,” according to Craig.
With the release of the superbug information, Mulcahey is even more worried about the patients under the care of travelers.
“Many of the travelers do not have the same type of training [as California nurses], so we are expected to train them while doing our own work,” she added. “It is overwhelming.”
The layoffs, negotiating issues, travelers and, according to Williams, the nurses that are quitting are all issues that weigh heavily on those who have been at VHH for many years.
“I grew up in Glendale and I know a lot of people in the area,” Mulcahey said. “When I got home from a hospital meeting the other night [after the superbug and other issues were discussed], I had over 600 Facebook messages from people who were concerned about the hospital’s [future] and me.”
“While we know that the elimination of any position affects peoples’ lives, we have done our best to minimize the impact on core clinical operations,” stated Craig. “At USC Verdugo Hills Hospital, we continue to have one goal that unites staff, physicians and administrators: providing the highest level of patient care and safety as a lifeline to the Glendale community since 1972.”
Klein respectfully disagrees. He has been with VHH for over 40 years, first as a volunteer when he was in high school at St. Francis and then as a physician.
“That was the whole plan in the 1960s,” Klein said. “[People] didn’t want to go to Pasadena or down south [to Glendale].”
And the concept had been working by giving locals a place to go where they saw familiar faces and found quality care. But now, Klein and Williams know of many complaints from patients, nurses and doctors.
“We have never had that many people complain, not in the 43 years I have been here,” he said. “Now [I feel] that has been destroyed in the last 19 months.”
Mulcahey wanted people to know that although they are at odds with the USC administrators, the nurses that are staying are doing so out of loyalty to each other, their patients and the community.
“We are family here,” Mulcahey said.
Klein echoed her feelings of frustration of seeing the changes USC has brought to VHH.
“This is my home,” he said.