Donning red and thrusting picket signs into the air with messages like, "Safe staffing saves lives," dozens of nurses banded together Friday evening outside Research Medical Center in south Kansas City to picket.
"We want this hospital to take steps so that we can have more nurses, more experienced nurses and decreased turnover of nurses," said Bessie Gray, a nurse in labor and delivery who has worked at the hospital for 39 years.
Added Leslie Rogers, an operating room nurse at Research with 40 years experience, "We know that it’s more likely that there will be adequate nursing care given to our patients when we have more staff."
HCA, or Hospital Corporation of America, owns several area hospitals and is the largest health care provider in the country. In a statement, a spokeswoman for the provider disputed the nurses' claims that its units are not staffed appropriately.
"We continue to earn national honors for quality and safe patient care," wrote spokeswoman Christine Hamele with HCA Midwest.
"For example, in 2017, Research Medical Center earned Advanced Certification for Comprehensive Stroke Centers; The Joint Commission’s Gold Seal of Approval; and the State of Missouri’s Level I Time Critical Diagnosis Stroke Center, providing definitive care to high volumes of stroke patients within the region. Additionally, last month Research earned The Joint Commission’s Gold Seal of Approval for Sepsis Program Certification, the first and only hospital in the State of Missouri."
The approximately 700 registered nurses at Research are in ongoing contract negotiations after their contract expired May 31.
They work for one of few union hospitals in the HCA system, according to Rogers. They're represented in negotiations by the National Nurses Organizing Committee.
The nurses point to data provided by the hospital that show staffing levels are often not meeting recommended levels, Rogers said.
For an undisclosed number of days in December, according to a press release from the group, nurses had too many patients in their care: 66 percent of the time in in-patient oncology; 84 percent in medical care; 53 percent in nephrology/metabolic; 21 percent in the intensive care unit; and 70 percent in cardiac telemetry.
"The union is asking for better retention for the nurses, so we can be in compliance 100 percent of the time," Rogers said.
But in her release, Hamele pointed out that after December, Research hired 40 more full- or part-time nurses, representing roughly 6 percent of the total nursing staff at the hospital.
"That does not include the 55 new graduate nurses that will begin their orientation in June and July," Hamele wrote.
She added that the graduate training program has a 99 percent retention rate. And nurses reported a 17 percent increase from 2018 to 2017 in satisfaction in areas such as engagement, motivation, trust with leaders and commitment to provide quality care.
"Clearly we are disappointed that they are using these tactics when we are making good faith efforts to negotiate. It’s unfortunate. … Having a union use (year-old data) when staffing patterns have changed isn’t the standard of care," she wrote by email to The Star. "These scare tactics will not interfere with the high level of quality of care we provide our patients and the love and trust we place in our providers."
Cheryl Rodarmel, a nurse with 25 years experience who works at Research, said that 188 nurses were hired and 169 quit in 2017.
"By (HCA's) own admission, they don't retain nurses. We want to be able to retain them for 10 to 20 years," Rodarmel said.
She added that nurses at Research earn less than the national average for registered nurses.
"At a competitive wage scale, the nurses are going to stay," she said.
Organizer Julie Perry said nurses from Menorah Medical Center in Overland Park, Kansas University Medical Center and the Kansas City VA Medical Center supported the cause Friday.
Jeff Suchman, a member of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1748, picketed with the nurses. Local auto workers, firefighters and allied trades unions joined as well.
"All unions at one point or another have to fight for a new contract," Suchman said. "And when you’re going up against a company … that has more power and resources than you do, one of the only ways you can exert leverage is people. You need bodies."
State Rep. Judy Morgan, D-Kansas City, spoke to the nurses assembled.
"Staffing ratios save patient lives, and they're critical to preventing RN injuries, workplace violence and infectious diseases," she said.
Earlier this week at Research, an historic eight-person kidney transplant chain was completed, making it the second-largest in Kansas City history.