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Nurses protested outside the Suburban Community Hospital in East Norriton, Montgomery County, on Wednesday afternoon.
They are concerned about staffing shortages, pay inequalities, and unpaid health care benefits.
The nurses, members of the Suburban General Nurses’ Association, an affiliate of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, PASNAP, say that Prime is betraying their newest contract in more ways than one.
“I’d like a little bit of respect for the job that I do for you, and honor our contract,” said Shannon Giambrone, co-president of the Suburban General Nurses’ Association. This is the third time the union has protested outside the hospital since the hospital unionized almost 50 years ago, according to Giambrone.
“When you fight to get a contract and then they just blatantly disregard it so frequently, it drags down the morale,” added Giambrone, who works in the ICU, and has worked for the hospital for 23 years.
A major concern is Prime not paying for health care bills that are within the benefits plan, per the most recent contract that the union agreed to.
Prime expects employees to use the hospital for all care, but for the care that the hospital does not offer, Prime is expected to pay for it as well.
That includes pediatrics, neurology, gastroenterology, interventional cardiology, obstetrics, and gynecology, according to Giambrone.
But Giambrone said, Prime is denying those bills, and nurses are getting hit with them instead.
“We saw this problem escalating and we really dug hard with it because we knew it was going to continue to be a problem. And now it’s just worsening. Everybody is seeing claims denied,” said Giambrone.
Union members say they have been at the table discussing issues with management and Prime, and haven’t seen changes. That’s why they took to the street on Wednesday.
Kristin Law has been a nurse there for 16 years. In December, her four-year-old son had to go to the emergency room at a different hospital that provides pediatric care. He had to stay overnight.
“And I subsequently received a bill for $17,000,” said Law. “As I’ve been here for 16 years, paying into my health insurance. So it’s frustrating that as a nurse, I can’t even get decent health care.”
Giambrone pointed to the irony of the situation. “You would think a company who is dependent on people having decent health care to survive would want to be an example for how people should be able to get their health care,” she said. “You would think that they would want their employees to remain healthy. We all know inside that building how badly things can go if you don’t do your preventative care appropriately, and yet they just make it unbelievably difficult to do the smallest things.”
A Prime representative told WHYY News on Wednesday that Prime is “dedicated to providing competitive compensation and benefits that truly reflect the professionalism, skill, and commitment of all those who work at [their] organization.”
Terena Stinson is a nurse in the ER, and has been at the hospital for 31 years. Stinson is the co-president of the Suburban General Nurses’ Association and lives in Norristown.
She said nurses are exhausted and constantly battling with upper management for better treatment.
“We come in, we do our job. But people are tired. They’re exhausted. And we’re fighting every day,” said Stinson.
On top of health care benefit issues, the nurses are calling attention to staffing shortages and lack of pay incentives for working extra time.
A few months ago, Prime pulled bonus pay for people who work extra hours, Stinson said. Now there is less incentive for staffed nurses to come in when needed. And staffing shortages are keeping that need high.
“Why not keep the pay? You’ll get more of your staff that knows what’s going on in the hospital, knows the policies, willing to come in. Why not compensate?” said Stinson.
Instead, Giambrone said Prime is re-signing agency nurses, nurses from outside companies, rather than incentivizing staff nurses to stay, “to give strength to the floor,” she said. She said there have been a few instances when the ICU is completely staffed by agency nurses.
“They can’t run a hospital with the strength that staff nurses can. They just don’t know the facilities well, they don’t know the physicians. In addition to that, they’re making a significant amount more money than the staff nurses,” said Giambrone.
Usually the hospital has a membership of around 100 nurses, and now they’re down to about 64, according to Giambrone. “That’s a significant deficit,” she added.
In an emailed statement, a Prime representative said staffing shortages are not just an issue at Suburban, but around the country. ”We have backup plans in place if our census goes up. We are committed to supporting our employees today, preparing them for tomorrow, and building a pipeline for the future.”
For many of the nurses, this isn’t just about their own treatment, but for those employees who are not protected by a union, and their patients.
“We know that we serve an underserved portion of the population and we’re needed. That’s what they’re there for, for the people,” said Giambrone.
But she said it’s like “beating your head against the wall,” just to do their job, “They’re constantly battling their employer. Not sickness. I got into this to battle sickness. Not my boss.”
“Most days I go home thinking I’m not coming back again. I feel for the patients, of course, they are the ones suffering. If we can’t care for them adequately and safely, what’s the point?”
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