One ambulance company's patients are steering clear of Forum facilities -- others say they've seen no change.
By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Humility of Mary Health Partners says its hospitals are geared up and ready to serve any additional health care demands which might result from a registered nurses strike against Forum Health, its major Youngstown competitor.
But ironically, HMHP could be grappling with its own employee walkout within a week -- Teamsters Local 377 representing 850 service and maintenance workers at St. Elizabeth Medical Center delivered a strike notice to the hospital administration Wednesday.
Ken Norris, a business agent for Teamsters Local 377 at St. Elizabeth's, said the strike notice states the union's intention to hit the picket lines when its contract expires at midnight May 9 unless an agreement can be reached.
Contract sessions are scheduled Friday and Monday, and Chris McCarty, regional director of communications for HMHP, said hospital officials remain hopeful for a settlement.
"The climate of talks has been cordial and cooperative," McCarty said. "We're hoping negotiations will lead to a successful contract without a work stoppage."
Norris said the Teamsters have scheduled a series of meetings Wednesday to give members a chance to learn about and vote on whatever contract proposal has been negotiated by then. Even though workers authorized a strike, there won't be a walkout until the members have a chance to vote on a contract proposal, Norris explained.
Local 377 represents a wide range of job classes, including maintenance, building trades, housekeeping, secretarial, clerks and cafeteria workers.
Meanwhile, a strike by the 771 members of the Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association, a unit of the Ohio Nurses Association, is in its third day. Registered nurses at Northside Medical Center, Tod Children's Hospital and Beeghly emergency and surgery centers in Boardman are on strike, while those at Forum's Trumbull County facilities and its Austintown Medical Center are not affected.
Forum has hired 270 replacement registered nurses from outside the area and officials have said the company's health care facilities will continue operating at full capacity.
McCarty said HMHP recently increased staff at St. Elizabeth's to prepare for an influx of patients which could result if the Forum strike continues.
Some staffing increases were made through new hires -- the company has hired more than 170 nurses in the past 15 months, 55 of them new since January. It has hired more than 500 new employees in 15 months, including nurses. Schedule adjustments, such as extending part-time workers' hours, also expanded the staff.
McCarty said St. Elizabeth's operating rooms and obstetrics departments have been busier than usual in the past couple days, but fluctuations are typical and it's too soon to connect those increases to the Forum strike. Overall, he said, St. Elizabeth's has seen no significant increase in patient numbers.
"We're hopeful that Forum and the nurses can reach a suitable agreement," McCarty said. "But in the meantime we also want the community to know that we have taken steps to guarantee that all our facilities can meet the needs of the Valley, as we always have."
Rescue workers at one area ambulance company, Austintown-based Lane Lifetrans, have noticed a dramatic decline in the number of patients willing to go to Northside since the strike began. "I can count the number of times we've been there on one hand, and we've been real busy," said Randy Pugh, operations chief.
"We usually transport about 50-50 between St. E's and Northside, but patients don't want the hassle of going through the picket lines," Pugh said. "I'm not saying the nurses have given us any trouble. We've been through, and they've been very professional, but people just don't want to cross."
Officials at Rural Metro ambulance in Youngstown and Pellin Ambulance in Canfield say they have not noticed any change in patient's attitudes toward Northside, however, and they said replacement nurses seem to be handling their duties well.
All three companies said they generally take patients to the hospital of their choice, unless they're too sick or injured to express a preference. Severe trauma victims are taken to St. Elizabeth's, since it has the area's only Level I Trauma Center.
Jim Jones, market manager for Rural Metro, said the company will continue to use Northside as usual, unless problems occur.
Pellin Ambulance general manager Rick Pellin Jr. said he's taking a "wait-and-see" attitude. "From our perspective everything at Northside seems to be running ship-shape. We haven't noticed a change," he said.