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My Word: Nurses’ fight is to ensure quality health care

Oakland Tribune, 12/22/11

By Michele Ross, RN and Elsa Matos-Leal, RN
December 22, 2011
Oakland Tribune

While most people are decorating trees and planning holiday parties, Sutter's registered nurses have been sitting at bargaining tables around the Bay Area. Despite the pull of the holiday season, we are fighting for health care -- both protecting the health of our patients by holding the line on patient-care protections Sutter wants to eradicate and stopping unwarranted cuts to health care coverage for our families.

Nurses would much rather be at the bedside. We did, in fact, offer to call off Thursday's strike if Sutter withdrew its disgraceful demands, but sometimes we are forced to take a stand so that our patients get quality care every day of the year.

Sutter doesn't have to provoke a conflict with its nurses. A very different model can be seen at Marin General, which agreed to withdraw contract demands similar to Sutter's. That opened the door to a settlement at Marin, formerly a Sutter facility, and a strike was happily averted.

Not so at Sutter. Despite hundreds of hours of talks, this corporation persists with the same hard line -- pushing more than 150 proposals aimed at the heart of our patient advocacy and eroding safety standards that protect our patients.

Sutter, not a mom-and-pop grocery store, hardly needs the sweeping concessions. It has amassed more than $3.7 billion in profits the past six years. It pays salaries of more than $1 million a year to 20 top executives, most of whom received pay increases of more than 100 percent from 2005 to 2009 according to Sutter's own public IRS filings.

Meanwhile, Sutter is demanding the elimination of paid sick leave for RNs that would have the effect of nurses reporting to work when sick, dangerously exposing our already fragile patients to further illness; blunting the voice of nurses to help determine staffing needs based on individual patient need; and forcing nurses to accept thousands of dollars in added out-of-pocket costs for health care for our families with restrictions on our ability to choose our own doctors.

For years, Sutter nurses have fought the company's efforts to slash patient-care services, such as breast cancer screenings, skilled nursing and dialysis. We've battled to keep hospitals open that help some of our most underserved communities, such as St. Luke's and San Leandro, and to stop wholesale cuts in services it deems less profitable, regardless of patient need, including mental health, women's health, home health and rehabilitation services.

Sutter's misguided priorities are symbolized by a study released by the University of California Hastings College of Law earlier this month. It found that Sutter's California Pacific Medical Center spends far less on charity care than other private hospitals in the city, despite being San Francisco's most profitable private hospital.

Sadly, this comes as no surprise to nurses who are spending days at the bargaining table instead of with their families.

This fight is not ours alone. It reflects a broader struggle that crosses all boundaries, and goes beyond our bargaining tables. Nurses are very much a part of the 99 percent. More than half of us support children, grandchildren, brothers, sisters and our parents. Not only do we serve the community, we are the community.

It's the nurses' view that all Americans deserve quality health care coverage and patient care -- that's the commitment we bring to the bedside every day.

We cannot accept corporate decision-making that puts balance sheets over community health, patient protections and safe care.

If nurses don't hold the line to protect health care for our patients, for our own families, for all families, who will?

Michele Ross is a nurse in the emergency room at Eden Medical Center and Elsa Matos-Leal is a nurse in the postpartum care section at Alta Bates Medical Center.

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