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UPMC nurses (left to right) Jaime Balsamo, Abigail Urion and Leann Oppel spoke outside the Blair County Courthouse on Tuesday morning to ask the state General Assembly to move from forward with patient safety legislation. Mirror photo of Patrick Waksmunski

UPMC on Tuesday denied that it was subjecting medical/surgical patients at UPMC Altoona to dangerous levels of nursing care or that it was prepared to punish nurses who complained about their staffing – despite a stint in a recent management newsletter claiming otherwise.

“The allegation is simply not true,” hospital spokesman Ed DeWitt said in an email, citing a “A” Safety note for the hospital released Tuesday by The Leapfrog Group, an organization that assesses medical facilities. “Providing patients with safe, quality care is always our highest priority,” DeWitt wrote.

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

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

The author of the bulletin saw the “sensitive subject” – as the author said – differently.

“Until things improve, we ask staff to understand that it is possible to take on 8 patients in medicine/surgery, when staffing situations are poor,” the bulletin pass states. “It’s not ideal, or safe, but it’s a direct order from senior management…and refusing to take an 8 when asked to do so may result in HR (human resources) being moved.”

A nurse-patient ratio of 1-5 or 1-6 is typical for medical/surgical floors, but 1-8 is “just too much” said a floating nurse who spoke to the Mirror on Monday but did not want her name used for fear of repercussions.

The bulletin “confirms what nurses have been saying for years – staffing is insecure and senior management is forcing us to take on too many patients”, Kim Heverly, president of the local SEIU Healthcare PA chapter which represents registered nurses at UPMC Altoona, said in an email Tuesday. “The nurses raised this issue internally and saw no significant change.”

And “UPMC threatened nurses with discipline” Heverly added.

Staffing struggles

Last fall, under a surge of COVID-19 patients, UPMC struggled to run out of staff, despite recruitment efforts, and continues to struggle, although COVID numbers have declined, as it has lost so many nurses in the meantime, according to registered nurse Jaime Balsamo, speaking on Tuesday.

UPMC lost those nurses because it was unwilling to pay enough to retain them, Balsamo said.

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

Their salaries only increase according to contracts negotiated by their union, she said.

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

The RN salary 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 nurses’ support for the patient safety bill, State House Bill 106, which is stalled at the House Health Committee.

The bill would set specific nurse-to-patient ratios for various hospital departments, set penalties for violations of those staffing ratios, and ensure that nurses could speak freely about patient safety without fear of reprisal.

For medical/surgical units, the proposed law calls for a ratio of no more than 1 to 4, or half of what the newsletter author said RNs at UPMC Altoona should be willing to accept.

Nurses at the press conference asked House Health Committee Chair Kathy Rapp to hold a hearing and then put the bill to a vote in committee.

Rapp did not return an invitation from the Mirror to comment on Tuesday afternoon.

If the bill becomes law, it would require UPMC to raise wages enough to retain or attract enough nurses to meet staffing needs, Balsamo said.

Forty-seven percent of nurses who recently left would consider returning “at the bedside” if the Patient Safety Act were passed, compared to 11% if it were not, according to a flyer distributed at the press conference.

UPMC tried to pay the nurses at UPMC Altoona more, but they refused, according to DeWitt.

“We have implemented significant and robust salary incentives that many hospital employees enjoy, but the SEIU… has refused to extend these incentives to (its) members,” he wrote.

Local nurses did not return Tuesday afternoon or evening with an answer on the matter.

No hospital wants to be understaffed, according to State Sen. Judy Ward, a former nurse and member of her chamber’s Health and Human Services Committee.

UPMC tries to recruit “desperately,” Ward, R-Blair, said.

But a widespread shortage of nurses has made it difficult for hospitals, as well as nursing homes, everywhere – even as the wider shortage of workers in general has made it difficult for companies to recruit in all economic sectors, a- she declared.

If the state were to pass the Patient Safety Act, it’s unclear where the workers would come from, she said.

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

Even outside of the current worker shortage, the Patient Safety Act would be counterproductive because of its rigidity, according to Ward.

Hospitals would struggle to maintain staffing levels during lunch breaks, evenings and nights, and when staff members call, fall ill 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 says.

The Mirror’s staff writer, William Kibler, is at 814-949-7038.



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