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UPMC denies claims of unsafe levels of nursing care

Nurses rally for passage of Patient Safety Act

UPMC nurses (from left) Jaime Balsamo, Abigail Urion and Leann Oppel spoke in front of the Blair County Courthouse Tuesday morning to advocate for the state General Assembly to move forward with the Patient Safety Act legislation. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

UPMC Tuesday denied that it is subjecting medical/surgical patients at UPMC Altoona to unsafe levels of nursing care or that it is ready to punish nurses who complain about their staffing levels — despite a passage in a recent management newsletter asserting the opposite.

“The allegation is simply not true,” stated hospital spokesman Ed DeWitt in an email, citing an “A” safety grade for the hospital released Tuesday by The Leapfrog Group, an organization that evaluates medical facilities. “Delivering safe, quality patient care is always our highest priority,” DeWitt wrote.

The newsletter shared widely on social media and with the Mirror Monday was “written by an employee (and was) reflective of their own opinions,” DeWitt wrote.

UPMC always “encourages staff to escalate any quality or safety concerns, and no nurse would ever face disciplinary action for raising (such) concerns,” he wrote.

The newsletter’s author saw the “touchy subject” — as the author put it — differently.

“Until things improve, we are asking staff to be understanding that taking 8 patients on med/surg is possible, when staffing situations are poor,” the newsletter passage states. “This is not ideal, nor is it safe, but this is a direct order coming from upper management … and refusal to take 8 when asked to may result in an HR (Human Resources) trip.”

A nurse-to-patient ratio of 1-5 or 1-6 is typical for med/surg floors, but 1-8 is “just too much,” said a floating nurse who spoke to the Mirror Monday, but who didn’t want her name used for fear of repercussions.

The newsletter “confirms what nurses have been saying for years — staffing is unsafe, and upper management is forcing us to take too many patients,” Kim Heverly, president of the SEIU Healthcare PA local that represents UPMC Altoona registered nurses, stated in an email Tuesday. “Nurses have been raising this issue internally and have not seen any meaningful change.”

And “UPMC has threatened nurses with discipline,” Heverly added.

Staffing struggles

Last fall, under a surge of COVID-19 patients, UPMC struggled with short staffing, despite recruitment efforts, and is still struggling, although COVID numbers have subsided, because it has lost so many nurses in the meantime, according to registered nurse Jaime Balsamo, speaking Tuesday.

UPMC has lost those nurses because it hasn’t been willing to pay enough to retain them, Balsamo said.

RNs start at $26.31 an hour at UPMC Altoona, she said.

Their wages rise based only on the contracts that their union negotiates, she said.

The current three-year deal, now in its final year, called for raises of 2%, 2.5% and 2.5%, respectively, she said.

The RN pay at UPMC Altoona is one of the lowest in the region, Balsamo said.

She was speaking after a news conference outside the Blair County Courthouse called to highlight the nurses’ support of the proposed Patient Safety Act, state House Bill 106, which is stuck in the House Health Committee.

The proposed law would set specific nurse-patient ratios for various hospital departments, set penalties for violations of those staffing ratios and guarantee that nurses could speak freely about patient safety without fear of retribution.

For med/surg units, the proposed law calls for a ratio no higher than 1-4 — half as high as the one the newsletter writer said UPMC Altoona RNs should be ready to accept.

The nurses at the news conference called for House Health Committee Chairwoman Kathy Rapp to hold a hearing, then move the bill to a committee vote.

Rapp didn’t return an invitation from the Mirror to comment Tuesday afternoon.

If the bill became law, it would require UPMC to raise wages high enough to retain or attract enough nurses to fulfill the staffing requirements, Balsamo said.

Forty-seven percent of nurses who recently left their jobs would consider coming back “to the bedside” if the Patient Safety Act were adopted, compared to 11% if it isn’t, according to a flyer distributed at the news conference.

UPMC has tried to pay the UPMC Altoona nurses more, but they’ve turned it down, according to DeWitt.

“We have put in place significant, robust pay incentives that many hospital employees are benefitting from, but the SEIU … has refused to allow these incentives to be given to (its) members,” he wrote.

The local nurses didn’t get back Tuesday afternoon or evening with a response on that issue.

No hospital wants to be short-staffed, according to state Sen. Judy Ward, a former nurse and member of her chamber’s Health & Human Services Committee.

UPMC has been trying to recruit “desperately,” Ward, R-Blair, said.

But a widespread shortage of nurses has been making it hard for hospitals, as well as nursing homes, everywhere — even as the broader shortage of workers in general has been making it hard for companies to recruit in all economic sectors, she said.

If the state should adopt the Patient Safety Act, it’s not clear where the workers would come from, she said.

It would create difficulties especially for small, rural hospitals, she said.

Even apart from the current worker shortage, the Patient Safety Act would be counterproductive because of its inflexibility, according to Ward.

Hospitals would struggle to maintain staff levels over lunch breaks, in the evenings and overnight, and when staff members call off, get sick or take vacations, she said.

“It sounds great, but when you get down to it, it would be problematic in a lot of ways,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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