Wednesday, December 18, 2013

KU Hospital nurses, supporters rally to ‘illuminate’ contract concerns

By MIKE SHERRY, KHI News Service

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Glow-sticks in hand, about 100 University of Kansas Hospital nurses and their supporters rallied Monday night to shed light on a proposed union contract that demonstrators said would jeopardize patient care.

At issue is a management proposal that would cover the approximately 1,400 members of the Kansas University Nurses Association (KUNA).

The proposed three-year contract would eliminate premium pay earned by nurses who agree to work all evening or overnight shifts. Premium pay for weekend shifts would remain, said hospital spokeswoman Jill Chadwick, but the union said the hospital has proposed cutting those back drastically.

“It is important that we show them we are not backing down, we are not forgetting about it,” KUNA President Emily Harvey told the demonstrators, who gathered on a sidewalk across from the hospital at the busy intersection of State Line Road and 39th Street. “The nurses still care about our jobs and the quality of care that we provide.”

Premium pay can range from a few extra dollars per hour above a nurse’s regular rate to as high as $14 more per hour, Harvey said.

Since it’s mostly senior staff that earn premium pay, she said, the elimination could drive away experienced personnel.

Because the hospital seems to be doing well financially, according to what leaders tell staff, Harvey said the nurses believed they would be in line for a raise. “And instead, we got cuts,” she said.

The union membership rejected the proposed contract on Nov. 7.

The two sides held 15 negotiating sessions between July and October, according to a notice of impasse the two sides filed last month with the Kansas Public Employee Relations Board.

Hospital officials expect the employee relations board to appoint a fact-finder soon, Chadwick said. She said the final say on the contract rests with the hospital board.

“We have a fair contract on the table,” Chadwick said. “I don’t be for one second patient care would suffer.”

She noted that under the proposed contract, nurses would still be eligible for another type of pay boost — called “differential pay” — for working evenings and nights.

She said the hospital is proposing salary adjustments across the workforce — both up and down — based upon the latest compensation survey conducted by Kansas City-area hospitals.

Like the rest of the workforce, Chadwick said, the KUNA nurses received a 2 percent raise this year.

According to the hospital, 23 percent of the KUNA nurses would lose less than $100 the first year of the contract while 65.5 percent would see an increase the first year.

The proposed contract, Chadwick said, includes a provision that the two sides would revisit the premium pay reduction after the first year.

But, Harvey said, reopening the contract could subject the nurses to pay cuts.

Chadwick said that, even with the market adjustments, the nursing pay at the hospital would still be “among the highest, if not the highest, in this market.”

Harvey disagreed.

“We have multiple nurses leaving all the time because they are getting paid much higher salaries at other hospitals than they are here at KU,” she said.

Chadwick said the hospital is scouring its budget to find operating efficiencies throughout the organization at a time when patient demand is increasing and revenues are decreasing. She said admissions have more than doubled, to about 31,000 a year, within the past 15 years.

Meanwhile, she said, the hospital estimates it will see a reduction of more than $95 million in Medicare reimbursements over the next five years.

Those are resulting from the Affordable Care Act, she said, based on the assumption that hospitals would be receiving more revenue from an expanded Medicaid program. But Kansas has not expanded Medicaid eligibility.

Chadwick also said the hospital contributes significantly to the University of Kansas Medical Center and last year wrote off about $51 million in care to patients who could not pay.

But, Harvey said, administrators should look elsewhere for savings.

“We are the heart of the hospital,” she said. “We provide the care to patients every day, and I don’t feel this is the rock to be looking under.”