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Kansas City nurses say understaffing makes hospitals unsafe, question ends ‘manufactured crisis’

Concerned about “terrible” staffing levels that have led to an environment they deem unsafe, nurses in Kansas City protested Thursday at the Research Medical Center for hiring more workers to serve patients.

Organized by local members of the National Nurses Organizing Committee, the country’s largest labor union for registered nurses, the protesters highlighted a situation where nurses are in short supply because they are quitting the profession in frustration.

They also say the nurse shortage, a problem seen across the nation, is part of a “manufactured” crisis stemming from corporate healthcare executives who care more about profits than the health of their patients.

“We’re seeing staff who aren’t at a safe level for patients and nurses,” said Jennifer Caldwell, among about 35 who held signs and chanted on the sidewalk outside her workplace at Kansas City’s Research Medical Center.

Referring to a nurse-to-patient ratio that has “deteriorated steadily since 2020,” Caldwell, a nurse in Research’s intensive care unit for 5 years, said national standards need to be set for hospitals. She added that workforce pressures created in the healthcare sector during the COVID-19 pandemic should no longer be an excuse for low staffing levels.

“We can no longer hide behind COVID,” Caldwell said. “They are hiring nurses. They just don’t hold them back.

The concerns raised at Thursday’s rally all came from employees of HCA Midwest Health, which operates seven hospitals in the Kansas City metro area. It came amid a nationwide campaign by the nurses’ union.

In response to a request for comment from The Star on Thursday, HCA Midwest Health spokeswoman Christine Hamele said the national union was making “inaccurate, misleading and counterproductive claims.”

“The Research Medical Center has a rich history of providing high-quality, safe and compassionate health care for more than 135 years,” Hamele said in a statement. “We are very proud of the many quality and patient care awards we have received from reputable, independent healthcare organizations.”

Hamele said the company is proud of its “significant investments and results of recruiting efforts,” saying they provide competitive compensation, meaningful opportunities for career growth and programs to support employee well-being. She also noted that the research was recently named among the top 250 hospitals in the nation by Healthgrades for overall excellence in clinical performance for the second consecutive year.

“Earning these prestigious awards would not be possible without the dedicated healthcare professionals and leaders who day in and day out are committed to delivering the best care to our patients,” Hamele said, adding, “While this union continues to engage in these kinds of tactics, The Research Medical Center continues to focus on fostering a collaborative, positive and supportive workplace in which healthcare professionals can thrive.

The public display came on the heels of a vote of no confidence by union members in the leadership of some of their top nurses.

Meanwhile, the nurses say they have unearthed these issues internally to no avail.

“We’ve tried meetings with management, demonstrations like this, arguing, and it just keeps getting worse,” said Zo Schmidt, a medical care nurse.

“When I started, I had an average of four patients a day. Now I have six. In addition to those six, the lead nurse, who is supposed to be a field resource to help us, now often has her own team of six patients.

“It’s getting more and more awful,” added Schmidt, who has been working on the research for 4 1/2 years. “And I believe it’s my duty to advocate for my patients as a nurse.”

One of the biggest issues Research’s local nurses raised was employee retention. They say they are watching some colleagues – who love all the jobs they do – leave the profession entirely due to industry pressures.

While trying to provide a solution, some have pointed to a model in California, the only state with a strict law imposing a minimum patient-to-nurse ratio that hospitals are required to maintain. Failure to comply can result in costly fines issued by the state health department.

“Hospitals do it because they don’t want to pay fines. If you hit them in the pocket, then they don’t like it,” said Cheryl Rodarmel, also a research nurse.

Missouri lawmakers began their latest legislative session this month. Rodarmel says he looks forward to supporting the change the union brings to Jefferson City and hopes to see action from elected officials.

And as for the current state of affairs at Research, Rodarmel benefits from extensive experience when looking into personnel concerns. He worked there for 30 years.

“I know it can be better and it should be better,” she said.

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