In first Texas contract, Nurses win voice in patient care standards

Registered nurses at four Texas hospitals recently approved first-time contracts that give them a voice in establishing safe patient-care standards.

The nurses belong to the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNU). They work at Las Palmas Medical Center and Del Sol Medical Center in El Paso, the Corpus Christi Medical Center, and the Valley Regional Medical Center in Brownsville, all owned by HCA, the largest private hospital operator in the US.

“Texas took a big step forward in terms of patient care standards with these agreements,” said Fred Flores, a Corpus Christi RN.

“This is a victory for quality health care,” said Ann James, an RN at Las Palmas in El Paso.

The new collective bargaining agreements create Professional Practices Committees, composed of RNs elected by peers who can make recommendations for improving patient care to management.

The contracts also establish staffing committees to recommend safe staffing levels based on patient acuity, the severity of patients’ illnesses.

RNs at these hospitals have been fighting for improved patient care and safer staffing levels for some time. In August 2011, nurses and their supporters at Las Palmas organized a lunch time demonstration at the hospital to call attention to staffing problems.

“We’re concerned because the level of staffing in our unit is inconsistent with the hospital’s own policies,” said Carmen Yazdi, at the demonstration. “Having too many patients prevents us from delivering the kind of care we want to give to our patients and to the El Paso community.”

Yazdi at the time was a nurse in the telemetry unit, where people with heart problems are cared for.

At the demonstration Terri Little-Verdugo, a neo-natal nurse, told the El Paso Times that the hospital policy calls for one nurse per two babies in the neo-natal unit, but at times, the actual ratio is one to three or four.

“I care for the sickest babies,” said Lucia Adams, another neo-natal nurse. “Because they are so small, a downturn in their condition can have an immediate impact on their lives. When we have too many babies to care for at the same time, it’s difficult to catch critical situations. We simply want staffing at a level that is consistent with the hospital’s care plan.”

Two months after the Las Palmas demonstration, nurses at the Del Sol Medical Center held a similar demonstration. “We’re not staffed at acuity levels,” said Monica Sanchez, a Del Sol RN to the El Paso Times. “It makes it harder to give the absolute best kind of care that we went into nursing to give.”

The need for safer staffing levels is one of the reasons that Sanchez and her cohorts joined the NNU during an organizing campaign, which led to the unionization of RNs at the four Texas hospitals in 2010.

After the completion fo the successful organizing drive, a bargaining committee began negotiating the first contract with the hospitals. It took two years, but an agreement was finalized, and nurses approved it on September 6.

“It took time,” said Adriana Soto, an RN, who works at the Valley Regional Medical Center. “But in the end we were able to reach a settlement that will solidify our RN organization and provides our patients in Brownsville with quality care.”

“For us, having an acknowledged role in the standards for patient care is a must-win in a contract,” said Maria Navarro, an RN at Del Sol.  “We are professionals who work at the bedside, and patients count on us.  Management gains from our expertise.  We need to be able to share it, and management needs to be listening.  We have achieved that in our new contract.”

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