Luis board grants 'emergency' raises to RNs


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ST. CROIX - After hearing a "statement of public need" about a critical nursing shortage that was read aloud, the Luis Hospital board on Friday night voted to implement major salary increases for its registered nurses, starting with the current pay period.

The move is an attempt to attract and retain more staff nurses - and do it quickly.

Much of Friday night's board meeting was focused on the hospital's current nursing shortage, which last month prompted the combining of two units and a reduction in the total number of available beds, as well as longer waiting times in the emergency room for patients who are being admitted.

Chief Nursing Officer Terry Lynch told the board that the situation with RN staffing has reached a critical point - "a state of emergency."

Hospital officials spoke to the board about various steps they are taking in an attempt to ease the nursing shortage - but they noted that RN salaries at their current level simply aren't competitive.

The hospital needs an additional 40 RNs to serve the island adequately - but needs to hire a total of 80 RNs to fill its current RN vacancies and replace RNs from traveling agencies, according to the "statement of public need" that Chief Executive Officer Jeff Nelson read aloud.

The statement notes that the shortage is leading to longer wait times in the emergency room, fewer available in-patient beds, increased patient complaints and elevated concerns about the ability to deliver safe patient care.

The statement notes that during the last year, Luis Hospital has reduced the number of staffed in-patient beds by 13 because of the nursing shortage.

"Less available staffed beds on the floor means very sick patients are admitted and housed in an already understaffed and overcrowded ER," the statement said. "Other patients have had to seek care elsewhere."

It goes on to say that the hospital can open additional in-patient beds only if it has additional qualified RNs.

Officials said that to attract additional qualified RNs, the hospital has to offer them competitive salaries.

Reference was made during the meeting to a "state of emergency" in the ER at times, particularly on recent weekends.

Luis Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Coleridge Franklin told The Daily News that during recent weekends, there have been times when almost every bed in the emergency room was filled with patients waiting for in-patient beds to open up so they could be admitted. One room would be reserved for any critical emergencies that arrived, and ER doctors were evaluating patients in the hallways inside the ER, he said.

The raises that Luis will implement for its nurses are raises that the board approved months ago and are part of a proposed collective bargaining agreement with the V.I. State Nurses Association that has not yet been signed off on by all the parties. Parties to the agreement include the government, Schneider Hospital, Luis Hospital and the V.I. Health Department.

The statement says the Health Department and Schneider Hospital have not yet signed the agreement that they negotiated.

Board members said on Friday that Schneider Hospital and Luis Hospital are in different situations.

The raises are significant.

When the Luis Hospital board initially approved the proposed collective bargaining agreement in July, Nelson said at the time that the starting salary for a hospital RN who has zero to two years of experience would jump from $47,800 to $63,000, and that RNs of all experience levels would see their paychecks go up.

Nelson also said in July that under the proposal, the average hospital RN salary would go from approximately $51,000 to $72,000 annually.

The resolution the board approved gives Nelson the go-ahead "to implement the already negotiated and approved salary increases for the RNs, effective for the current pay period."

Board members said that implementing the raises leaves the hospital potentially open to litigation because it will be giving nurses raises when the proposed collective bargaining agreement has not yet been executed.

The statement of need noted that any delay in implementing the salary increases for Luis Hospital's registered nurses "places an increasing risk of delivering unsafe patient care."

"Waiting for the VISNA wage issue to be approved by the Department of Health and Schneider Regional Medical Center prevents the retention and recruitment of RNs" at Luis and costs Luis "excessive dollars spent on traveling RNs," the statement says.

Board members spoke individually about their strong support for the salary increase before taking a vote.

Dr. Anthony Ricketts said the issue is all about patient care.

"It comes down to why we are here," he said.

Ricketts said that in the midst of the current nursing shortage, he had two patients "who could have had very bad outcomes."

"Let's move forward to take care of the patients who come to us," he said.

Board member Wallace Phaire said that he thinks the raise is "way past due."

The resolution passed, with all board members present - Chairwoman Kye Walker, Joyce Heyliger, Imelda Dizon, Phaire and Ricketts - voting for it.

It was not clear what would happen with retroactive pay. The proposed collective bargaining agreement calls for the raises to be retroactive to Oct. 1, 2011.

Nelson said that the hospital has the funds to pay the higher salaries moving forward, and likely will have the money to pay retroactive pay back to the beginning of the current fiscal year, by spreading the payments gradually over the next six months.

However, the hospital will have to wait until it is in a better financial position to pay retro for the period from October 2011 to October 2012, Nelson said.

- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email jblackburn@dailynews.vi.

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