Austin (KXAN). One of Central Texas’ top three health care systems, Ascension Seton, has been facing a lot of problems over the past few weeks.
Most recently, the company and Central Health announced on Tuesday that they were suing each other over medical services.
It came on the same day that nurses at a medical company announced they were holding candle pickets on Thursday to demand better wages and working conditions for staff.
On Monday, Ascension also confirmed to KXAN News that it had laid off employees from Texas.
And still ongoing: Ascension’s contract negotiations with Blue Cross Blue Shield Insurance Company, which puts 66,000 Texans at risk of losing their health care through Ascension and BCBS Texas if negotiations fail by January 31st.
“We’re five days away from delivery and we don’t really know if we can deliver with our hospital or our provider,” said Robinne Parkington, a patient in limbo.
This is an unwanted obstacle right before the finish line.
“We… like many people have gone through a struggle with infertility,” she said. “The irony is that now the same health insurance we worked so hard to get we may not be able to use so we can successfully have a baby in a healthy place.”
Christy Lesher, director of the University of Texas Health Initiative at McCombs School of Business at Austin, said most of Ascension’s current problems stem from staffing issues: layoffs, nurse demands and negotiations with Blue Cross.
“We have a real real crisis in terms of finding people and then being able to pay them enough to make them feel satisfied and think the pay is fair,” Loescher said.
She said staff shortages had been a problem for years before the pandemic, but when a large number of nurses quit during busy times, there were no new ones to replace them.
“Now the gap has widened. We are not doing anything to close the gap,” she said.
Lescher, who said UT employees are part of BCBS/Ascension’s insurance coverage, explained that staffing problems have led to a war between hospitals for nurses.
“That’s one of the reasons Seton is trying to get Blue Cross Blue Shield to pay them more because they were in a … tariff war and were trying to pay enough to hire enough nurses,” she said.
According to her, this is where layoffs can begin.
“If I have to pay more for care, then it must be coming from somewhere else, which is probably why you hear about some layoffs,” Loescher said.
Registered nurse Lindsey Spinney is on the team to secure the first union contract for Ascension Seton.
She said Ascension has the resources to improve its workforce.
“There is no shortage of nurses. In fact, there are many licensed nurses. There are not enough people willing to put their license and livelihood on the line for a company that once again chooses to put profit on the safety of its patients,” Spinney said.
She said that the reduction in Ascension is leading to an increase in the work of nurses.
“Nurses do the work of two to three other people in addition to six to eight patients,” Spinney said. “It’s impossible to give someone the care they deserve when you’re one person.”
Spinney said this is already affecting patient care.
“That’s when our license is at risk. That’s when mistakes are likely. And this is a matter of patient safety,” she explained.
“Happy employees serve better than angry or sad employees. Thus, if we have crazy and sad employees, this affects the quality of service,” Lescher said. “I’m not saying it’s dangerous, but I’m saying it affects service.”
Lescher also said that if Ascension and Blue Cross don’t strike a deal, the consequences could spill over to other hospitals.
“Already… with the holidays coming up, every emergency room was overflowing, the beds were full,” Loescher said. “So if you take a group of patients from Assension Seton and have to shove them to other hospitals, it will make the bed crisis worse.”
Parkington worries she could be sent to a new hospital or have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket to stay on her current team.
“If we get close to or miss my due date… We feel like we have to step into the unknown and just walk into a new hospital and hope for the best,” she said. “Definitely not the ending we expected after all this time.”