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UPMC Altoona nurses rally for ‘safe staffing’

HOLLIDAYSBURG — About 30 registered nurses from UPMC Altoona rallied in front of state Sen. Judy Ward’s office Thursday to highlight their demand for more robust staffing and to encourage Ward to support a law that would set such staffing ratios for all Pennsylvania hospitals.

“Safe staffing saves lives,” read placards held by the SEIU Healthcare PA nurses.

“Hey hey, ho ho, unsafe staffing’s got to go,” they chanted at one point.

The nurses are negotiating a new three-year contract and want it to include higher nurse-patient ratios to counter management’s suspension last year of staffing guidelines in the current contract, they said.

The proposed staffing ratio law, Senate Bill 450, modeled on a longstanding law in California, could prevent one in 10 of the surgical deaths that now occur in Pennsylvania, according to a study by a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, the nurses said.

“We continue to negotiate in good faith,” hospital spokeswoman Danielle Sampsell said in an email, referring to the contract. “UPMC Altoona’s goal is to support our care teams and provide the very best care and experiences for our patients and families.”

“I’m very sympathetic to (the nurses’) concerns,” said Ward, a former registered nurse who worked in coronary care, the recovery room and in cardiac rehabilitation at the hospital. “I (too) have great concern about nurse-patient ratios.”

But she’s reluctant to get between the union and management on a contract issue, she said.

She also disagrees on how legislation can best help solve the problem, she said.

UPMC Altoona has been unable to correct its staffing shortfall because of recruitment and retention problems stemming from pay that isn’t competitive with UPMC’s main rival for employees, Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College, according to the nurses.

Short-staffing can be dangerous, according to nurse Leigh Straw, who works in the observation unit, which handles patients whose insurance won’t pay for admission, but who are too sick to go home, Straw said.

Many are watched for signs of strokes and heart attacks, he said.

In March, the hospital downsized the unit from a nominal 24 to 15 beds, reducing staff from six RNs to four, he said.

Since then, however, that smaller staff has had to contend with 18 to 24 patients routinely, he said.

Because of the high patient population, he frequently worries about missing something that might harm his patients, he said.

“I’ve been on the floor and had stressful times on staffing, call-offs and double shifts,” Ward said.

But such problems are best addressed legislatively not by the proposed law that the nurses favor, which mandates staff ratios, but by another proposed law she favors, which suggests ratios, while leaving the details to be worked out between management and staff, said Ward, vice chair of the Health & Human Services Committee.

The less flexible law could hurt the smaller hospitals in her district, such as Tyrone, Conemaugh Nason and J.C. Blair, she said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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