ELLSWORTH — Nurses, hospital technicians, legislators, union representatives and even a few patients joined a rally in S.K. Whiting Park on Tuesday evening in support of increased security and more staffing at Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital.
The group of about 30 people held signs and chanted.
“We’re here because we’re frustrated,” said registered nurse Bruce Becque. “The administration as far as we’re concerned is all talk and no walk.”
Unions representing Maine Coast nurses and medical technicians are currently negotiating new contracts.
Money is a part of the negotiations, of course, but it’s not the biggest factor, said several rally-goers.
“Wages and all of that come into this,” said registered nurse Joan Torrey, who has been with the hospital for 24 years. “But at the end of the day we need a safe place to work and our patients need a safe place to be. They should not be fearful and we should not be fearful of day-to-day work in that hospital.”
“I want the hospital to be able to give 24-hour security,” Torrey continued. She wouldn’t go into detail about security issues, but said some staff members have been fearful to come to work.
David Evans, a respiratory therapist who has been with the hospital for 14 years, said he has heard about several assaults on staff by patients.
“It happens a lot on nights in the [emergency department],” he said.
According to police records, officers are often called to the hospital several times per week to help deal with unruly patients.
“It’s kind of becoming the norm,” Evans said.
John Ronan, CEO and president of Maine Coast and Northern Light Blue Hill Hospital, said last year that Maine Coast planned to fund an officer position through a partnership with the Ellsworth Police Department, but the plan hasn’t been enacted. The hospital did hire a security guard from an outside firm, said Evans, but the guard is limited in enforcement ability and is not there around the clock.
In a statement, Northern Light Maine Coast spokeswoman Kelley Columber wrote that “While Maine Coast Hospital frequently partners with the Ellsworth Police and Hancock County Sheriff’s departments, the hospital is not currently in discussions with the city of Ellsworth to contract city-employed law enforcement staff to provide regularly scheduled security coverage.”
Columber did not provide specifics on the security situation at the hospital, but said: “Safety is everyone’s business and administrators join providers, nurses and all staff in committing to the safety of both patients and employees.
“During the past several years, we have focused on increasing safety and security. We continually review and evaluate hospital safety; we have met with external experts for advice, and have engaged in third-party assessments.
“Maine Coast has provided training for staff, taken steps to implement new safety measures, and have security staffing in place to provide additional coverage.”
The rally on Tuesday evening was in support of two separate unions, both in the midst of contract negotiations with Northern Light — one that includes nursing staff and another that includes medical technicians. The technicians have been in negotiations for nearly two years; the nurses, since May.
There are a few big sticking points, say union negotiators: security, staffing ratios and compensation.
“Nurses have more patients that they’re dealing with,” said Torrey, holding a sign that read “Stand up for patient safety.” The union is calling for a third nurse on duty in the emergency department on the night shift, as well as for charge nurses to not have patient assignments, to allow them to be able to supervise and assist other nurses.
Evans is part of a group of medical technicians that unionized two years ago and that has yet to broker a contract with the hospital.
The technicians, said Evans, are particularly concerned about recruiting and retaining staff to maintain safe patient ratios, which he said could be helped by setting “fair compensation.”
“This is not about money for people at the top. This is about raising the bottom up a little bit so that we can recruit people. You want to be able to hire people that are skilled to promote better patient care.”
Evans said he worries that the hospital has lost many of its seasoned professionals over the years and that the losses are impacting patient care.
There’s another aspect that has affected patient care, said Evans, and that’s the recent switch to outsourcing some providers.
The hospital began a contract with Tennessee-based Team Health last year, bringing in hospitalists and emergency room physicians from around the country to help deal with staffing shortages. Outsourcing some providers has become common in hospitals around the country, said Gordon Smith, former executive director of the Maine Hospital Association, in an interview earlier this year.
“It’s largely happening because health care is so damn expensive,” Smith said. “To provide that service in your community now … it’s really hard.”
Physicians who were already working for the hospital were offered contracts with Team Health, but not all took them, Evans said.
“Team Health, you know, there are some good docs,” said Evans.
“They’re knowledgeable. They just don’t have anything invested. Some have been here a year. But honestly some of them come up for just a week. They probably spend more time in the orientation than they’re going to spend with patients. It’s not fair to the patients.”
Sometimes, said Evans, a patient will ask a nurse or technician who their doctor is.
“We can’t tell them because we don’t know.”
Sen. Louie Luchini (D-Hancock County) and Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth) both attended the rally, as did a representative from the office of U.S. Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine). State Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook County) sent a letter of support.
“I think if we’re going to retain our current nurses and get new ones to come to Maine we’re going to have to make sure they feel safe at work,” said Luchini. He has been working on bills to help alleviate the nursing shortage, including one that would make it easier for veterans to get into the field.
“We’ve got to make sure they feel safe and that they’re fairly compensated.”
Jackson’s letter admonished hospital officials for not being able to reach a deal.
“The failure of hospital administrators to agree to a fair contract is both counter productive and unacceptable,” Jackson wrote. To those rallying on Tuesday, Jackson wrote: “I have your back.”
Hospital spokeswoman Columber said that hospital representatives plan to meet with the Maine State Nurses Association again next month, “and look[s] forward to a successful resolution soon.”