OP-ED: The Human Cost of For-Profit Healthcare

By Elaine Weale, RN, president of the Wyoming Valley Nurses Association (PASNAP), as published in The Citizens Voice and the Times Leader

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My passion is caring for people. I have been a Registered Nurse for 40 years, the last 37 at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital. I live here. My son and daughter-in-law work at the hospital too, and almost all of our friends and neighbors have been treated here.

For me, this isn’t just a job. It’s my life.

A strike is a last resort. I speak for all of my coworkers when I say that we would much rather be in the hospital, caring for our patients, than outside fighting for them. But CHS, our for-profit owner, has pushed us here. Understaffing in the hospital has become so severe that we feel we have no choice.

In our Emergency Room, the posted schedule had over 900 vacant four-hour shifts during a six-week period. We estimate that the hospital is short-staffed by at least 107 full-time nurses. Since we are the professionals who spend the most time at the bedside working directly with patients, you can imagine what these shortages mean for quality of care.

Chronic understaffing has been an ongoing struggle for us, but our repeated calls for improvement have fallen on deaf ears. CHS has refused to take nurses’ concerns seriously and has allowed unsafe staffing to worsen. They continue to utilize illegal mandatory overtime to fill in long term staffing vacancies. This increases risk for both patients and nurses, who are more likely to make mistakes when forced to work well beyond their scheduled 12-hour shifts. CHS continues to ignore the law, and has recently received 10 citations for specific violations by the Department of Labor and Industry.

Enough is enough. Would you want your loved one to be cared for on a unit that is short-staffed, where nurses are neglecting one patient in order to give attention to another? Or by a nurse working her 16th hour? Is that the quality of care that you expect?

It’s certainly not the quality of care that we want to provide as dedicated nurses.

Adding to the staffing problems, the hospital has sought and received provisional certification as a Trauma Center, which brings with it additional state and federal money, along with an influx of more critical patients — people with catastrophic, life-threatening injuries — at a time when we’re already struggling to provide safe care. Trauma certification requires additional nursing staff that are trauma certified and have no other patient assignment, so they can care for trauma patients as they come in without shortchanging other patients. The Hospital is failing to meet those requirements on a daily basis. As medical professionals on the front lines, we say this is beyond irresponsible.

CHS is a for-profit company that trades on Wall Street. It is responsible to shareholders, not to patients or our community. Our CEO pocketed nearly $5 million last year, including an $800,000 cash bonus, more than 80 times more than the median employee.

In addition to saving money by understaffing, Wilkes-Barre General boosts profits by charging thousands more for common procedures than other hospitals in the area according to a report by the Pennsylvania Healthcare Cost Containment Council for 2016. Sadly, these charges haven’t resulted in better outcomes for patients or better staffing for nurses. We lag behind other hospitals in mortality rates in several key areas, including heart attacks, kidney infections, and pneumonia, according to the same report.

If CHS were to negotiate in good faith — take the concerns of its nurses seriously — and make a meaningful investment in staffing and quality of care, we know we could do better.

We want to do better, we need to do better, because this is our hospital, our community. Our families are treated here.

Improved nurse staffing has been shown to not only save lives, but to reduce medical errors, lower infection rates, prevent accidental falls, reduce readmissions, and increase overall patient satisfaction. These results are documented in countless studies.

As medical professionals, we pledge to “do no harm.” I see every day how patients suffer as a result of unsafe staffing. In moments like this, our vow demands that we take a stand to advocate for our patients.

My coworkers and I — the nurses at Wilkes-Barre General — are outside because things have become intolerable inside. As frontline caregivers, we are united in our demand for safe staffing, for trauma patients, and for all our patients.

Patients in Luzerne County deserve better from CHS.

Elaine Weale, RN
Wyoming Valley Nurses Association

Zack Rearick