Staff cuts at Red Cross harm blood supply, coalition says

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; 6:01 PM

A coalition of advocacy groups on Wednesday called on the Food and Drug Administration to investigate the Red Cross to determine if employee reductions by the organization contributed to its failure to adequately manage the nation's blood supply.

The AFL-CIO, Workers Committee for Blood Safety, the National Consumers League and other organizations said anonymous employee whistle-blowers at the Red Cross complained to union representatives that the Red Cross is reducing the number registered nurses who oversee blood donations and replacing them with staffers who were hired for other tasks and subsequently trained to draw blood.

"They've gone to a lower-cost workforce, and have had very significant turnover problems," Edward Feigen, a strategic campaign coordinator for the AFL-CIO's collective-bargaining department, said following the groups' announcement at a news conference. "People on blood drives tend to make mistakes. When there's constant turnover, when people aren't experienced, you're asking for problems."

Red Cross spokeswoman Stephanie Millian questioned the motive behind the announcement, saying it came as unions are negotiating labor contracts at Red Cross Blood Services Regions nationwide. Millian called it "a negotiating tactic to try to gain leverage at the bargaining table."

"While issues of blood safety and the presence of nurses were brought up at these press conferences, it is wages and benefits that remain the top union concern at the table in each of our negotiations, not blood safety," Millian said.

The Red Cross is a Washington-based charity that manages nearly half of the nation's blood supply and contributes to national disaster relief efforts. Since 1993, the group has been under a court-supervised consent decree due to chronic problems related to its blood collection.

In October last year, the FDA issued an Adverse Determination Letter listing three events in which the Red Cross collected blood from donors who reported a history of testing HIV-positive, and not properly testing blood for HIV infection. Other donors had histories of hepatitis infection, and blood products were not properly screened for syphilis.

Two years ago in June, federal regulators fined the Red Cross $1.7 million for washing six units of red blood cells using the wrong saline solution, according to the FDA. In February 2008, the Red Cross was fined $4.6 million for 113 instances in which the organization collected "unsuitable blood components," according to an FDA review. The Red Cross has been fined for at least $21 million for safety lapses in the past seven years.

Union officials said employees in Connecticut complained that workforce reductions created a staffing ratio of one employee for every 25 donors. In Buffalo, nurses are no longer required in rooms where blood is donated, and drivers of Red Cross mobile units are being asked to draw blood. In New Jersey, the Red Cross has reduced a force of 75 nurses to 18 over 10 years.

But Feigen and the whistle-blowers have not drawn a direct connection between the reduction of workers to problems collecting blood. The coalition provided only anecdotal evidence to support its allegations.

"Calling blood safety into question as a negotiation tactic is highly disappointing," Millian said. "The blood supply is safer today than ever before. . . . While the blood supply will never be without risk, people should not hesitate to donate or receive needed blood products."

The Red Cross has "made great strides" in decreasing overall problems associated with blood collection since 2005. The Red Cross has reduced high-risk problems with blood collections by 60 percent in the past two years, Millian said.

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