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Nurses picket highlights needs

Pointing out the severe nursing shortage in Nevada and California, more than 150 union-supported registered nurses picketed Tuesday outside Washoe Medical Center.

The Reno hospital receives on the average 18 patients a month from Barton Memorial Hospital, CareFlight ambulance service reported.

There was no work stoppage at Washoe Medical Center as a result of the afternoon picket, which organizers say prompted community sympathizers to honk as they drove by.



The nurses are angry over the state of contract talks, charging the hospital with unfair labor practices.

The union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming medical center officials disrupted union-staged activities and illegally withheld merit-wage increases based on the performances of 400 nurses since July 1.




The union has been meeting with hospital officials to hash out negotiations since Dec. 1, 1999, but the progress is too slow to satisfy the registered nurses.

“We are very anxious to get this concluded,” Washoe Medical Center spokeswoman Judy Davis said.

Davis declined to comment about the compensation package on the table but recognized the importance of working out a deal that would be competitive in an evolving workforce.

“We are very concerned with how hard it is to attract a capable, caring staff,” she said.

The sides are expected to go back to the bargaining table March 1.

“We have requested on several occasions for interim wage increases to keep Washoe Medical Center competitive with the surrounding hospitals, yet they have refused on each occasion,” union representative and hospital RN Carin Franklin said. “We need to let the community know what we have felt for a long time, that the hospital is not bargaining in good faith.”

Franklin said the challenge of attracting and keeping qualified nurses is all the more critical given the West’s nursing shortage.

“The turnover is killing us faster than what the schools can turn out,” she said.

Nevada was ranked last in a recently released federal report in its nurse-to-population ratio. A division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also rated its neighboring Golden State as second to last.

“The way the population is exploding, the supply and demand is completely off balance,” Nevada Hospital Association spokeswoman Doreen Begley said. “This isn’t just a health-care issue. It’s a community issue.”

Begley attributes the shortage to a number of factors.

While the level of enrollment in nursing schools has lowered because so many other fields present more options to the traditionally female line of work, the number of nurses opting for retirement has gone up. The average nurse’s age is 45.4.

The population growth in Nevada as well as California has also increased significantly, with the Silver State taking the prize as the fastest growing state in the nation, according to preliminary U.S. Census figures. Las Vegas is the fastest growing city.

Begley said nurses are seeking perks that range from better hours and salaries to acknowledgement and recognition.

“Nurses have become so homogenized. We need to recoup the romance,” she said of attracting a significant number of prospective nurses to the field.

To address the issue, Begley’s hospital association is hosting a free, public forum at the Holiday Inn in Reno March 5 and 6.

University of Nevada, Reno, Health Policy Analyst, John Packham, will present his local research, titled “The Nursing Workforce and Nursing Education.”

In his study, Packham used state employment estimates, along with nursing-school enrollment at the four community colleges and two universities against projected statewide demand. He then broke them down by region – Las Vegas, Reno and the rural balance of the state.

Like an island in a sea of turmoil, Barton Memorial Hospital officials say Lake Tahoe’s unique nature places it in a position not as impacted by the shortage as surrounding medical centers.

“It’s not as hard to recruit here as Fresno and Los Angeles,” Barton Risk Manager Katherin Biasotti said. “I think we have a unique situation here. We haven’t had a shortage.”

Quite the contrary, the RN said the South Shore hospital – which shares a joint operating agreement with Washoe Health System as it concerns Carson Valley Medical Center in Gardnerville – has been able to fill the positions because people want to live here.

However, Biasotti recognized the “widespread problem” as a topic of discussion occupying many meetings among nurse case managers.

Barton is helped by having a large non-benefited pool of per-diem nurses. And it has a new graduate program with an extensive amount of training for nurses who come on board. As part of it, new nurses receive 56 hours of class time over six months, said Vicki McKenna of the hospital’s education department.

The hospital recruits within 200 miles of its location.

On the North Shore, Tahoe Forest Hospital has also tried to head off the crisis situation at the pass.

“We haven’t experienced it in the past. That’s why we’re addressing it now,” said Ann Holmes-Delforge, the Truckee hospital’s director of inpatient services.

The hospital gives temporary employees on-site housing and works closely with different schools to attract its nursing staff, she said.

Holmes-Delforge said the Tahoe situation is hard to judge but feels the nurse supply-and-demand pendulum swing could shift up to the lake at any time.


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