HGEA nurses disgruntled over Kaiser management

Union leader: Things not as rosy as portrayed at former public hospitals

The head of about 800 union workers at Maui Memorial Medical Center said Maui Health System officials need “to step up their game” and start fulfilling “the bill of goods” touted by the private entity to improve former public hospitals on Maui.

Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, said on Wednesday that in the past several weeks, union hospital workers have been reaching out to the union to express concern about inadequate staffing, mainly nurses, along with not having enough supplies or staff support at Maui’s only acute-care hospital.

He reported that employees believe that the July 1 changeover of operations from the quasi-public Hawaii Health Systems Corp. to Kaiser-affiliated Maui Health System at Maui Memorial, Kula Hospital and Lanai Community Hospital has not been as rosy as painted recently in the media.

And, Perreira said Maui Health System has not come through with its promises to upgrade health care in Maui County.

The privatization of three former public hospitals was aimed at stemming skyrocketing state costs and improving patient care.

“Employees are growing more and more concerned about impact to patient care,” Perreira said. “That staffing levels are not what they need to be. It’s already well known Kaiser so far has not been successful in recruiting some physicians.”

Asked if the issues raised by union members, who are mainly nurses, present a threat to patient health, Perreira said it’s “not a conclusion we can reach.”

“From our perspective, our concern is we certainly don’t want to go there, we certainly don’t want things to go where patient care is being compromised,” he said.

But he added that the union and its members are raising the concerns now, especially about staffing, because staffing could be an even more serious issue in the future if employees quit or burn out.

Perreira said the timing of the union raising staffing issues publicly is not tied to ongoing contract negotiations between the HGEA and Kaiser. He said the union aims to “make the hospital better.”

Perreira acknowledged that it has been less than a year since Maui Health System took over hospital operations, but he maintained it should be enough time to deliver on at least some promises, instead of none.

In response, Maui Health System spokeswoman Chastell Ely said in an email that the hospital operator has “made considerable progress on stabilizing staffing” by recruiting full-time and part-time employees and significantly reducing the use of temporary traveler staffing.

She did not provide specific numbers of employees or vacancies at Maui Memorial but gave an update on nursing hires.

Since July, when the system took over operations, 75 local registered nurses and 47 new graduates have been hired, Ely said.

Prior to that, in July, the hospital had 200 temporary or traveling registered nurses. Now that number is approximately 90, she said.

Ely said that active recruitment is underway for two neurosurgeons to join the Maui Health System medical staff as community neurosurgeons in private practice, with medical privileges to perform surgery at the hospital. She said that the hospital does not directly hire physicians but is a community hospital with community physicians credentialed to also work there.

Maui’s only neurosurgeon, Dr. Thomas Rogers, is planning to retire soon, and that has raised concerns about treating Maui patients with head trauma and spinal injuries.

“Identifying the right candidate and getting them here could take some time,” Ely said. “We look forward to making introductions to our community as soon as possible.”

Ely said Maui physician recruitment has focused on doctors who specialize in gastroenterology, oncology and trauma surgery.

Hiring nurses and doctors takes time, especially with shortages in the state, she said.

As for specifics about staffing and adequate supplies, Perreira said he did not have many specifics because union members did not divulge too much detail, possibly to not compromise patient privacy.

But in one case, a nurse reported that there were no tissues in one of the wards.

In other cases, union members said they do not have enough nurses to establish a working standard that members want to maintain and what members think the community expects.

Perreira said union workers have expressed their concerns to management but still are not seeing major results.

He questioned if there were issues at the hospital or higher up with Kaiser. “Are things bottle necking on Maui?”

Perreira said that through all of this, the workers continue to do their jobs.

“I gave the staff a lot of credit,” he said.

As for supply shortages, Ely said she was not aware of any, but said that living on an island could result in occasional delays in receiving shipments. That information is communicated at daily safety briefings with recommendations to ensure patient safety.

She said Maui Health System will continue to invest in people, services, facilities and technology “to build a high quality medical community.”

As for the HGEA, she said Maui Health System began negotiations with the union in early August.

“We value and respect the contributions of our employees who provide care for the Maui community and we continue to actively negotiate in good faith,” Ely said.

The sticking points for the union, according to Perreira, are the employees’ medical plan, retirement and wages.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.