THIS IS AN UPDATE on healthcare, which by any standard continues to be the most absurd healthcare system in the world. Don’t look any further than the dilemma facing Columbia Memorial Health (CMH) and the union that represents its nurses and other staff members.
Last week members of the 1192SEIU United Healthcare Workers East union came to 7th Street Park just down the hill from the hospital to urge CMH to increase the pay of nurses and other workers in light of what a union press release calls “a severe staff shortage.” CMH, which has non-profit status, agrees that there aren’t enough nurses and technical specialists including lab and medical imaging technicians. Hospital President and CEO Jay Cahalan says the actual number of open positions is fewer than the union’s estimate. But he doesn’t shy away from defining the current situation as a crisis. It’s a crisis for CMH, for many hospitals in rural New York State and, according to the news website Politico, it’s a crisis that affects the whole country.
The main difference between the union and CMH appears to be where the money will come from to pay higher salaries that attract registered nurses and other healthcare professionals to CMH. The nurses saw pay increases in the current labor contract and their agreement lasts until next year. But Mr. Cahalan says the hospital has already paid more than the union wage to attract nurses. And still the shortage of staff persists.
So who’s responsible for the lack of nurses? Mr. Cahalan puts much of the blame on the pandemic and its lingering effects. It has led to earlier-than-expected retirement for many nurses; others have pursued new careers; the population is aging and there are not as many people entering healthcare as there used to be. And then there are the federal Medicaid and Medicare payments, which account for three-quarters of CMH revenue. Those reimbursements don’t pay enough to cover the costs of CMH care.
In its press release the union says CMH should “fix the situation.” Don’t scoff at that attitude. Unions aren’t hedge funds. They’re looking out for their members. That’s their job. But on this issue it’s time both sides made an effort to work together on ways to encourage more healthcare professionals to choose CMH.
This is not a proposal for the employees to run CMH, nor is it an effort to reopen the collective bargaining agreement. Think of it as a way to address what’s really at stake: How can we staff CMH to keep it a safe, sustainable hospital, rather than turn the site into a theme park? Everybody who wants to contribute should get a chance to speak.
So maybe it’s not the most original approach. Just keep in mind that the primary audience for the proposed solution is a few dozen people—federal and state elected officials who represent the 100,000 residents of the CMH service area as well as similar community hospitals around the state.
Keep the process simple and transparent. Politicians don’t like surprises. Don’t reinvent the wheel; reach out to see who else has a plan like yours. Treat everybody involved with the same respect you would like them to show you.
And please, if anybody claims success in resolving this staff shortage crisis easily or fast, be skeptical. There are no winners or losers in this effort, only survivors.
CMH is an advertiser in The Columbia Paper.