VA hos­pi­tal in Lit­tle Rock hir­ing to re­plen­ish nurse ranks

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - HUNTER FIELD

Two weeks af­ter protest­ing out­side John L. McClel­lan Memo­rial Veter­ans Hos­pi­tal in Lit­tle Rock, nurses at the fa­cil­ity are “cau­tiously op­ti­mistic” about steps be­ing taken to ad­dress staffing short­falls.

As of last week, Cen­tral Arkansas Veter­ans Healthcare Sys­tem had of­fered jobs to 36 new nurses, be­gun the re­cruit­ment process with 52 more and started ori­en­ta­tion for 13 new nurs­ing staff mem­bers.

The hos­pi­tal ini­tially closed 19 beds be­cause of the nurs­ing short­age, but it soon con­sol­i­dated pa­tients and staff mem­bers on two of the three sur­gi­cal units, free­ing up beds in the other unit and al­low­ing staff mem­bers to be “flexed” to that area, hos­pi­tal spokesman Chris Dur­ney said. The hos­pi­tal has re­tained its nor­mal level of ser­vices through the strug­gles, Dur­ney said.

The lo­cal chap­ter of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Em­ploy­ees still has some con­cerns, but chap­ter Pres­i­dent Bar­bara Casanova said in an in­ter­view that the union has seen promis­ing signs. Since the protest, for ex­am­ple, the ra­tio of on-duty nurses to pa­tients has im­proved, she said.

“The num­bers are re­ally good right now,” Casanova said. “Our big fear, though, is that they’ll go back in the toi­let when no eyes are watch­ing.”

The cen­tral Arkansas Veter­ans Af­fairs sys­tem’s hir­ing strug­gles fit into a larger trend of nurs­ing short­ages at other Arkansas hos­pi­tals and at VA fa­cil­i­ties na­tion­wide.

The VA in­spec­tor gen­eral found in a 2016 re­port that the agency was los­ing nurses at an alarm­ing rate, and re­cent data in­di­cate that the bulk of the VA’s nearly 50,000 va­can­cies are for med­i­cal staff po­si­tions.

U.S. Sen. John Booz­man, R-Ark., ques­tioned VA lead­ers on Tues­day about the Lit­tle Rock staffing short­ages dur­ing a hear­ing of the Se­nate Veter­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee.

Dr. Tom Lynch, VA as­sis­tant deputy un­der­sec­re­tary for health clin­i­cal op­er­a­tions, told Booz­man that the agency had been fo­cused on cen­tral Arkansas.

“Nurs­ing has been a prob­lem for all of health care,” Lynch said. “We have been work­ing ag­gres­sively in Lit­tle Rock. We have had our chief nurs­ing of­fi­cer work­ing with the fa­cil­ity to iden­tify staff in nurs­ing to get to the fa­cil­ity.”

Booz­man agreed with Lynch that the hir­ing strug­gles reached be­yond the VA, adding that the VA could have “tremen­dous in­flu­ence and be a leader in the di­rec­tion for­ward.”

While the Arkansas State Board of Nurs­ing doesn’t track em­ploy­ment data, Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor Sue Ted­ford said the $10,000-$15,000 sign­ing bonuses cen­tral Arkansas hos­pi­tals are of­fer­ing in­di­cate a lo­cal nurs­ing short­age.

In May, CHI St. Vin­cent an­nounced a part­ner­ship with the Univer­sity of Arkansas at Lit­tle Rock to ad­dress the nurs­ing short­age. Chad Adud­dell, CHI St. Vin­cent’s chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, said at the time that cen­tral Arkansas alone had a short­age of 700 nurses, and he ex­pected that num­ber to in­crease.

Even be­fore the June 26 union demon­stra­tion, the cen­tral Arkansas VA health sys­tem has been work­ing to ad­dress the short­age, Dur­ney said. Ad­min­is­tra­tive staff mem­bers have at­tended 10 ex­ter­nal re­cruit­ing fairs in the past year, and the hos­pi­tal started a so­cial me­dia cam­paign in Jan­uary to at­tract more help.

Casanova said the nurses de­cided to protest last month be­cause they thought staffing lev­els had de­te­ri­o­rated to the point of hurt­ing the qual­ity of pa­tient care.

“The big­gest com­plaint I heard from nurses was ‘I can’t be a nurse be­cause I’m too busy putting out fires,’” Casanova said. She also ex­pressed con­cerns about nurses be­ing moved from spe­cialty ar­eas to other ar­eas where they lacked com­pe­tency.

Cen­tral Arkansas VA lead­ers ap­proached the union with an ac­tion plan to re­solve the com­plaints, and they have im­ple­mented a se­ries of ini­tia­tives to im­prove em­ployee morale, Dur­ney said.

The sys­tem hopes to hire 45 new nurses in med­i­cal/ sur­gi­cal po­si­tions, of­fer­ing up to $15,000 in re­cruit­ing in­cen­tives.

It will im­ple­ment a “re­fer­ral and stay” bonus pro­gram for ex­pe­ri­enced med­i­cal/sur­gi­cal and crit­i­cal-care reg­is­tered nurses.

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