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Board reacts to unhappy nurses

Hours top

list of concerns

A group of concerned Whidbey General Hospital surgical services nurses found the medical facility’s board of commissioners amenable to forming a steering committee whose sole purpose would be to address work-related issues.

The cadre of peri-operative nurses filled the seats at Monday’s hospital board meeting.

Cal Cogburn, a veteran RN and licensed general practitioner, addressed the board on behalf of the specialized nurses. He laid out a list of concerns he said have collectively created a dire situation for the group of approximately 30 employees.

The total number of complex surgeries has decreased due, not only to technological issues, but to fewer surgeons on staff. Mandatory hospital “convenience time,” which cuts into employee hours when they are sent home for lack of work, has seen a proportionate increase as the number of surgeries has dwindled.

“With the transition of surgical services and cases that are not as complex, in a 10-hour day, we might work six,” Cogburn said.

He estimated that 160 mandatory convenience days have been logged in over the last four months. The hospital, however, allows the nurses to perform other unrelated tasks to offset the cuts.

“They’re doing this to sustain their salaries because they can’t afford not to,” Cogburn said of some of the nurses. He added that finding a new recruitment strategy will be imperative.

Commissioner Holly Schoenknecht said the constant struggle with low reimbursement from insurance companies affects the entire hospital. Cogburn, acknowledging the funding woes, pointed out that some of the nurses, including himself, supplement their income with a second job.

He added that the nature of the group’s job specific expertise and duties makes recruitment difficult. Cogburn added that the nurses are committed to finding a solution that will assuage their concerns.

“These are our jobs and this is our community,” he said.

Cogburn proposed forming a steering committee made up of a cross section of stakeholders to open a dialogue that will ultimately create solutions that are “viable and new.”

“We throw everything out and begin anew,” he said.

The staff members reportedly discussed before the meeting what they felt would be the board’s likely response. Cogburn said people felt the commissioners would listen, but not act on the information presented.

“I’d like to see you prove us wrong,” he said.

The board proceeded to begin doing just that. Ron Wallin, the newest commissioner, agreed starting a committee small, with set goals and candid input, would be a logical beginning.

“We can’t fix the problem unless we get input from all the different parties,” he said.

Cogburn proposed that the committee initially have no representative from the hospital administration. Scott Rhine, Whidbey General chief executive officer, was opposed to the stipulation.

Schoenknecht said any exclusions would sour the outcomes. But more importantly, she said hospital administration must be involved.

“I really feel that Scott is our only employee,” she said of Rhine, who reports to the board.

Cogburn acquiesced. He said the group would be malleable to ensure all parties are represented.

Commissioner Dr. Paul Zaveruha empathized with the nurses.

“I’m in this world too, but from a different perspective,” he said. “I get a different view of the same problem.”

Cogburn said after the meeting that what the nurses want as a staff is a “robust, viable, community hospital that serves the needs of the community.”

Rhine said Tuesday that he appreciated the nurses speaking to the board openly. Although the board is aware of the turnover issues and other shortcomings implicit with running a comparatively small, rural hospital, he said a steering committee would help generate dialogue and solutions.

“I think it’s important that we all be at the table,” he said. “The administration needs to communicate, communicate, communicate. And when we think we’ve communicated enough, we need to communicate some more.”

Rhine added that the beauty of a public hospital district is the public involement.

“I think this will almost be a standing item on our agenda for a long time,” he said.

Cogburn and the nurses agreed to meet and generate a list of recommended committee member names to submit to the board.

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