ELLSWORTH — Nurses union representatives delivered a petition with 66 signatures to Maine Coast Memorial Hospital officials Aug. 28 urging that improvements be made regarding staffing at the hospital.
According to Bruce Becque, a registered nurse and the chief steward of the nurses union at the hospital, many in the union are frustrated by what they say are unsafe and inappropriate staffing levels.
The petition made three main allegations: that a lack of staffing has led to nurses having to cover phones when they should be working with patients; that charge nurses, who are supposed to oversee department operations, are being assigned patients in violation of their contract, and that contractual staffing standards for the intensive care unit and medical/surgical ward are not being met.
“We have repeatedly requested better staffing levels and have yet to see substantial improvement,” signatories wrote in the petition.
Becque said charge nurses, who are supposed to be overseeing the functions of specific departments and are not supposed to have patient assignments, have regularly been assigned to handle patients.
Julie Allen, a charge nurse in the surgical services department, likened it to being an air traffic controller and a pilot at the same time.
According to a September 2017 schedule provided to The American, secretaries in the maternity ward will work only three day shifts each week, and that all night shifts are unstaffed. Nurses will be left to cover the phones.
“This is symptomatic of what’s been going on at the hospital for five years,” Becque said of the staffing issues. “They’re cutting and cutting, and when people leave they don’t replace them.”
In a written statement supplied by MCMH Communications Director Kelley Columber, hospital officials said they believed they were adhering to the nurses’ contract, and that fluctuations in patient needs meant staffing had to be “continually evaluated.”
“We strongly believe that Maine Coast is abiding by all contractual obligations,” MCMH officials said in the statement. “Charge nurses are always available as a resource to nursing staff. As agreed through collective bargaining, there are times, because of higher numbers of patients or patient acuity, that charge nurses are assigned to care for patients.”
To Allen, staffing problems are hurting the hospital’s ability to handle patients.
“It seems like short-sighted financial decisions for a quick impact, but it’s having long-term, devastating results,” Allen said.
MCMH was acquired by Eastern Maine Health Systems in 2015. Charlie Therrien, the CEO at the time of the merger, took the lead job at Mercy Hospital in Portland in late 2016, and Blue Hill Memorial Hospital CEO John Ronan took over. Ronan is now president of both the Blue Hill and Ellsworth hospitals.
Becque said he’s tried to follow the grievance process laid out in the nursing contract, but hasn’t seen results. He said because there’s no watchdog ensuring proper working conditions are met, his group had to submit the petition.
Their concerns are not confined to union-represented nurses. Certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs), who have individual contracts at the hospital, have also seen challenging working conditions.
Max David, the chief CRNA, said administrators decided on May 8 nurse anesthetists would no longer be paid for taking calls during their off hours. David said that amounted to an effective pay cut of about 30 percent.
In response, he said, three of six CRNAs at MCMH left their jobs, and a fourth is considering leaving.
MCMH officials said in a written statement that they wouldn’t discuss specific employment matters.
“We regularly review compensation practices to ensure the needs of both the employees and the organization are being met and are consistent and competitive with national compensation benchmarks,” the statement read.
David said hospital administrators agreed with anesthetists on Sept. 1 to start paying for calls they take after six free calls each month.
The open CRNA positions still haven’t been been filled, he said. Though candidates have been interviewed, David said the hiring process can take a long time, meaning there are gaps in the schedules for anesthetists.
MCMH officials told The American that locums, or per-diem professionals who are not on staff, have been hired to fill those gaps. David said there have still been challenges meeting patient needs.
Earlier this summer, according to David and Becque, there was no nurse anesthetist on call at MCMH for an entire weekend. Becque said this had never happened before, and the operating room had to shut down.