Nurses union reports unsafe understaffing at Washington Hospital Center

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010; 8:07 PM

The largest nurses union in the United States asked the D.C. Health Department on Monday to investigate nurse understaffing at Washington Hospital Center that the union says is jeopardizing patient care.

In a 19-page report filed with the department, National Nurses United documented 50 instances of what it described as unsafe patient care this year in all departments in the hospital. No deaths were reported.

The reports describe instances of patients not receiving medication on time, newborn infants not being fed promptly and a patient who was rushed back to the operating room after the patient had stopped breathing and suffered cardiac arrest. The union did not know whether the patient survived.

A group of nurses hand-delivered a copy of the report to hospital officials Monday morning and urged them not to wait on regulatory action by the District but to return to the bargaining table and address staffing issues immediately, union officials said. Shortly afterward, the report was filed with the health department's health-care facilities division.

A spokeswoman for the hospital said that the report "is seriously flawed and misleading."

"In our initial inspection of the document, we see factual errors and gross misstatements," So Young Pak said. She said that there were no deaths this year related to inadequate nurse staffing.

Hospital officials have said that they are committed to strengthening staffing. The union says that the hospital has not hired enough nurses to address high turnover; many nurses have left because of staffing levels, union officials said.

The hospital said it plans to hire 200 nurses by June 30. It also said that it has hired 385 new nurses since Jan. 1 but that 239 nurses have left the hospital, a net gain of 146. With 926 beds and 1,666 nurses, Washington Hospital Center is the area's biggest hospital.

Nurse-to-patient staffing ratios were part of contract talks this year. The union and managers had agreed to staffing goals for each shift. But after contract negotiations broke down, management unilaterally imposed a wage and benefit plan Oct. 1 that effectively cuts many nurses' take-home pay for working evenings, nights and weekends.

The labor dispute has prevented the staffing goals from being put in place as policy. A few days after the wage plan was imposed, the local union representing the nurses voted overwhelmingly to join National Nurses United, which has about 155,000 members. Monday's action appears to signal a new aggressiveness by the union on staffing.

Union officials have said that previous complaints about nurse understaffing have not produced a satisfactory response from hospital managers.

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