Labor

California Nurses Lead Nationwide Strike Over Lack of Ebola Protection to Spotlight Hospital Cuts

As usual, it's nurses -- not hospital executives -- who are pushing for health and safety.

Photo Credit: Steven Rosenfeld

Crowds of nurses dressed in red and hoisting signs proclaiming “Kaiser RNs Are The Heart of Patient Care” and “On Strike For Health and Safety” launched a two-day strike at 26 Northern California hospitals Tuesday. The protest will expand to 15 states on Wednesday to highlight how corporate cost-cutting is harming nurses and patients.

“We are pretty infuriated. We are working for a corporation that just released their third quarter earnings and they have $3.1 billion in profits—a record,” said Kathy Roemer, a maternity nurse who has worked at Kaiser’s Oakland, Calif. hospital for a decade. “Meanwhile, you have nurses that walk into their job every single day and they are seeing an erosion of patient care. Kaiser is engaging in a business model that denies care to patients.”

“What does the erosion look like?” she said. “Go into the emergency room. People who would have been admitted into the hospital a few years back are no longer getting admitted and are sent home. If you are admitted, you’re admitted to a lower level of care than nurses think you need—not intensive care but a medical-surgical unit. In intensive care, it’s one or two nurses per patient. In medical-surgical, it’s much less.”

Roemer’s comments typify the parade of management-created horribles striking nurses recited from the podium outside Kaiser’s hospital in Oakland, where the nation’s largest bargaining unit of registered nurses, with 18,000 members, is in a nasty dispute with the nation’s largest HMO, or health-maintenance organization. The outcome is likely to establish precedents that will resonate nationally, as it includes a contract negotiation that affects staffing levels, nurse-patient ratios, training for care-related settings, and its growing use of less trained staffers and outpatient services.

Kaiser has roughly 7.4 million members, with about 78 percent of them in California. Its profits grew 41 percent in the first three quarters of 2014, largely due to 422,000 new Obamacare enrollees, according to financial reports, which say the healthcare giant has about $22 billion in cash reserves. Yet at the same time, the union says Kaiser has cut more than 2,000 registered nurse and nurse practitioner positions in the past three years, leaving patients sicker with fewer nurses and less time for them.

“We know what we are here for—we’re here for our patients. And we’re here because we have seen patient care degrade over the 17 years that I have been in Kaiser. And this, to me, is not acceptable,” longtime organizer Kathy Donohue said, kicking off a noon rally. “It’s not acceptable for our patients to be paying the premiums and expecting to get treated with the best service ever and not having the resources to take care of them.”

“I just heard this radio ad coming over here—this is the audacity of these hospitals,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, National Nurses United’s executive director, speaking to the strikers. “They say, ‘there’s an extremely dangerous virus, Ebola. And yet the nurses are outside.' But really? We’ve been saying this for two months—there’s an extremely dangerous virus. The nurses and patients want protection. They’ve ignored us. They’ve tried every scheme and scam to downplay the importance of the virus. And now, today, when you are walking out over patient care, and walking out over Ebola, they are saying on the radio, ‘Ebola is very dangerous.’ And then they go on to say, ‘California hospitals, where caring is our calling...’ Everybody who hears that groans like you do. It’s so outrageous.”

The striking nurses and hospitals are both engaged in a battle for public perceptions. The Ebola-related concerns are a symptom of that larger battle. The nurses say cost-cutting has demoralized their ranks and left many patients wondering at the quality of care—such as being admitted at later stages of bad illnesses, being discharged too early, and often being left to fend for themselves instead of accessing a nursing staff that is trained to handle medical crisis. 

“We have a big fight ahead and we’ve got a huge fight that you know about,” DeMoro said, referring to a contract that expired in August. “I just can’t say how critical it is what you’re doing. Kaiser has bought off so many persons—politicians. They bought off other unions. They bought off the community. They pay so much. And they write the money off. They use it for tax write-offs for their non-profit as they are making billions of dollars and can’t buy the appropriate equipment for their nurses?”

“I have never seen anything so outrageous in my entire time—and I have been here almost 30 years,” she continued. “This is the most outrageous thing I have ever seen. Where you cannot put the right equipment in place. Where you cannot provide the right health and safety measures for your nurses and patients. And you make billions and billions and billions of dollars in profit? It’s obscene. It’s wrong. They just have no moral center. Kaiser has lost its way—there is no question about that.”    

The lack of Ebola treatment preparations typified this profit-centered approach, DeMoro said. She noted it was not hospital executives, but the nursing union officials who had to speak up, telling President Obama, Congress and federal health agencies that hospitals lacked the training, preparation and foresight to deal with the threat.

“It should have been the hospital’s job, not the nurses to have to fight for safety. That’s obscene; that’s wrong. I am so angry about that I cannot tell you,” she said. “Because one nurse, taking care of one Ebola patient, could cost her her life, and they can’t put the right protocols in place to protect you? It’s disgraceful. It’s criminal. And if they can’t take care of their nurse workforce, their license should be yanked and this community should take over this hospital.”

The nationwide protest actions scheduled for Wednesday will focus on Ebola, primarily because that it's such a hot topic in the news. But at Tuesday’s Oakland rally there was no shortage of examples showing the impact of corporate cost-cutting. A weekend emergency room worker told of delayed access to blood transfusion supplies because of staffing shortages. A maternity room nurse described having to choose between helping a hemorrhaging women who had just given birth and her baby who needed a ventilator to breathe. A hospice nurse said patients who paid premiums all their lives were shunted to “outside agencies” instead of being hospitalized. A cancer nurse said medical assistants lacking training were caring for the sickest patients. And cleaning staff were not being given enough time to clean and disinfect hospital rooms before new patients were brought in. 

“Ebola is symbolic of your life, every day, in these hospitals where you have to fight to protect your patients against the cutting of patient-care standards, against pushing patients out too fast, about putting them in their appropriate settings—it’s an everyday battle with these hospitals,” DeMoro said. “And you will win, because if you don’t win, people will die…It’s shocking that we have to force them to do patient care right. It’s shocking.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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