Nurses Rally to Save St. Luke’s As Strike Looms

by Paul Hogarth on October 4, 2007

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While George Bush vetoed a bill to expand the federal health insurance program for low-income children, Bay Area nurses protested a more local and immediate obstacle to affordable health care – Sutter Health. The corporate hospital conglomerate plans to shut down three of its local facilities that serve low-income patients, including St. Luke’s in the City’s Mission District. And with nurse staffing shortages that fall below proper regulations and industry standards, the California Nurses Association is planning a two-day strike next week – where up to 5,000 nurses will walk off their jobs to demand better health care and retirement benefits. At a rally in front of St. Luke’s yesterday, the nurses declared that they were doing this for the patients – and for the community.

“Sutter made $587 million in profits last year,” said nurse Jane Sandoval, “but now they want to close down St. Luke’s. As nurses, we fight for patients’ rights every day – our patients need St. Luke’s, and our community needs St. Luke’s.” Located in the Mission District, St. Luke’s is a refuge for thousands of indigent clients who depend upon basic treatment facilities – but in recent years Sutter has been gradually cutting back on services, as it hopes to open a new facility in Cathedral Hill.

“This is my neighborhood,” said Supervisor Tom Ammiano, “and you don’t mess with this ‘hood. Sutter has no idea what it is to take care of a patient in a professional and caring way.” Assemblyman Mark Leno also offered words of support for the nurses, while Senator Carole Migden’s aide read a statement of solidarity. “Nurses are the backbone of our health care system,” said College Board Member John Rizzo. “To close this hospital in this community is scandalous.”

When Sutter took over St. Luke’s Hospital several years ago, they promised to keep the facility open and continue to serve indigent patients. But the nurses say that patients have being denied access to various departments. “It’s a death by 1000 cuts,” said Sandoval. “As nurses, we do not want to go on strike. But we cannot continue to work in a facility where patients are being short-changed. Sutter has said that St. Luke’s is too expensive to run. But with all their profits, I think they can afford to spend a little money.”

The nurses have been fighting for a new union contract since May, and according to Jan Rodolfo of the California Nurses Association, negotiations are now at an impasse. “The hospital is threatening to cut health care benefits for our nurses,” said Rodolfo, “and their retirement plans. I believe that Sutter has no intention to seriously deal with the staffing problems at St. Luke’s. They are jeopardizing us, they’re jeopardizing our patients, and they’re jeopardizing our community.”

Recently, for example, the hospital chain eliminated the 3:00-11:00 p.m. work shift at St. Luke’s for emergency room nurses, putting the nurses instead “on-call.” Therefore, if a patient comes in for emergency surgery during those hours, there is no regular nurse on staff and the hospital has to call a nurse to come in from home. “Sutter is not meeting the standard that other hospitals have followed,” said Rodolfo, as she noted that hospitals like Kaiser Permanente and Catholic Healthcare West are following better staffing standards.

The nurses plan to go on a two-day strike on October 10th and 11th, as a means of getting a better union contract – and better services for their patients. The hospital plans to spend money during those two days to hire replacement nurses as strike-breakers, which a representative from St. Luke’s lamented is money they will be “forced” to spend when they could be improving the hospital. But that’s exactly what the nurses are calling for.

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