About 1,000 nurses at two Montgomery County hospitals controlled by the Seventh-day Adventist Church have been granted a 5 percent wage increase by the hospitals' board, which is under criticism for giving executives big raises and multimillion-dollar severance deals as it cut staff in recent years.
The raise brings general nurses to the same levels as operating room and emergency department nurses, Adventist spokesman Robert Jepson said. He said there was no connection between the raises and employees' anger over recent reports of large pay increases for executives who oversee Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville and Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park.
"It's all based on a constant evaluation of what nursing compensation is in the market," he said.
But many current and former employees believe the raise is a move to placate them after recent reports in The Washington Post that executives' salaries soared as the hospitals were cutting back in other areas. Doctors and nurses at Shady Grove complained that the cutbacks hurt the quality of care.
Some nurses said that even after the raise, they will be paid less than nurses at many Washington area hospitals.
"When these people were making these inflated salaries, the nurses were just so overworked, and every penny was being accounted for, and we were just scrimping," said an Adventist hospital nurse who asked not to be identified. "They wouldn't order pens and pencils--you had to bring in your own. It was absurd."
Donna Hazzard, a coordinator laid off from Shady Grove's quality improvement unit in September, said that keeping pay at competitive levels is important--and that it did not happen at Shady Grove. "The quality of care certainly is affected by the type of workers and what you're paying people and your high turnover rate," she said.
Doctors and nurses say layoffs and staff realignments ordered by the Adventist HealthCare Inc. board contributed to patient care problems at Shady Grove, including the death of a woman who was left unattended in a hallway, lost surgical specimens, medication mix-ups and unanswered call buttons. Hospital regulators have threatened Shady Grove's accreditation and its Medicare funding.
Besides endorsing the raise, the Adventist HealthCare board reorganized itself this month in response to criticism from doctors, county officials and employees at Shady Grove over executive pay.
In 1997, Adventist, a tax-exempt organization, issued severance pay worth $4.7 million to Bryan Breckenridge, the departed chief executive, and $3.1 million to Edmund R. Peters, chief financial officer.
In addition, Adventist's board chairman, Ronald M. Wisbey, saw his compensation rise from $161,000 in 1996 to $447,000 the next year and $364,000 in 1998. Cory Chambers received $319,000 in total compensation as Adventist's executive vice president in 1996, followed by $815,000 the next year and $842,000 in 1998.
After the patient care problems became public, Chambers was forced to resign and Wisbey temporarily replaced him.
The executive pay embarrassed some board members, who said Adventist officials refused to tell the full board the cost of the pay plans before persuading them to approve them.
Jepson disputes that. "The numbers were presented to the board and are reflected in the minutes," he said.
But several board members confirmed that the compensation committee did not share details with the full 22-member board.
"There were no numbers, that would be right," said Breckenridge, who had a board seat.
"We all feel betrayed," said one board member, who asked not to be identified. "They told us we should trust the numbers. What is astounding is you have a church-based operation working with private industry salaries on the CEO-CFO level but functioning with a volunteer board like a church. Which are we, fish or fowl?"
Maryland Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery), who has been on the Adventist board for 14 years, said she learned about the numbers in the newspaper. She said she misses meetings because of legislative responsibilities.
"I think someone questioned the amounts," she said, "but I couldn't for the life of me tell you."
Under the board reorganization adopted last week, compensation committee sessions will be open to the full board.