By Mike Faher
University of Vermont Medical Center leaders say they have a “comprehensive plan” that will keep most hospital services unaffected if unionized nurses go on a 48-hour strike starting today.
The hospital has made some concessions for a work stoppage: Administrators say they’ve postponed 68 elective surgeries that had been scheduled for today and Friday after consulting with surgeons and patients.
But the hospital is bringing in nearly 600 replacement nurses to cover shifts during a strike. That means all emergency, trauma and urgent care services are expected to continue uninterrupted, and administrators said outpatient appointments have been “largely unaffected.”
UVM Medical Center officials are trying to make sure it’s business as usual during a possible strike. That’s no small task for a hospital that has 342 inpatients and 3,000 outpatient visits on an average day.
“Rest assured, we will be ready to serve our patients no matter what occurs this week,” said Eileen Whalen, president and chief operating officer.
The hospital and the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals have been negotiating since late March. The union represents about 1,800 licensed practical nurses, registered nurses and nurse practitioners at Vermont’s largest hospital.
Pay and staffing are the main obstacles to a new contract.
Nurses say they’re overworked because of a consistently large number of vacancies, and they say the hospital doesn’t pay enough to recruit and retain new staff. Hospital leaders say their vacancy rates are not unique among health care facilities nationwide, and they’ve offered a “fair and competitive” wage hike.
The union’s contract expired Monday. In June, nurses overwhelmingly authorized a two-day strike if necessary, and the union said last week a strike would begin today, Thursday, at 7 a.m. if no new deal was reached.
The two sides were continuing to talk.
In the meantime, hospital administrators called a press conference Tuesday to discuss their preparations for a strike. The gathering’s main theme was that no necessary care will be denied.
“I want to assure the community that our emergency room, trauma services and urgent care will be available 24/7 as they always are,” said Chief Medical Officer Isabelle Desjardins.
She also said most outpatient appointments will be kept. Whalen said any patients whose appointments are affected by a strike will be notified in advance.
“If you as a member of the community have not heard from your doctor’s office, please keep your appointment for July 12 and 13, as we’re welcoming you and expecting you,” Whalen said.
There will, however, be fewer surgeries if nurses walk off the job. Administrators said 120 procedures were scheduled for Thursday and Friday, and 68 have been postponed, including eye surgeries, specialized orthopedic surgeries and ear, nose and throat surgeries.
“In some cases, after careful discussions with the surgeons involved, we decided it would be appropriate to reschedule certain elective procedures because they involved the use of complex teams,” Desjardins said. “Most will be rescheduled within the next month.”
The hospital has contracted with Colorado-based Autumn Consulting Services, which specializes in preparing for work stoppages and providing temporary staffing. Autumn Consulting arranged for nearly 600 replacement nurses to descend on Burlington this week, said Laurie Gunn, UVM Medical Center’s vice president for employee, family and patient experience.
“The nurses who are hired by firms like Autumn do this for a living,” Gunn said. “They’re very experienced nursing professionals who are used to coming into unfamiliar surroundings and performing at a very high level.”
UVM began training those nurses on Tuesday.
The cost of 600 replacement nurses is not clear. Union leaders have said a strike could cost UVM Medical Center $1.2 million per day in salary alone. Whalen has not provided specific figures, “but it will be very costly,” she told reporters Tuesday.