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Lenox Hill Hospital Nurses Mull Strike Action

By Amy Zimmer | October 16, 2012 11:43am

MANHATTAN — The nurses at Lenox Hill Hospital are considering a strike if their contract negotiations with North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System don’t meet their demands.

The New York Professional Nurses Union could vote to authorize a strike at its membership meeting on Wednesday as it heads into the final stretch before its contract expires Oct. 31.

North Shore LIJ is proposing several contract changes involving how long and where nurses work. The hospital network could force them to work longer hours, removing their current contract's clause preventing mandatory overtime.

Unlike the current contract, which states that nurses work in the area of their expertise, the new one would allow them to be moved around to other clinical divisions.

The hospital network would give raises of 1.25 percent, 1 percent and 1.25 percent over the next three years — which the nurses said will still put their salaries behind other Manhattan medical centers and harm Lenox Hill’s ability to attract new talent.

“They came up with a number of proposals that compromise patient safety and the ability to attract and retain nurses,” the union's president Maureen McCarthy said.

“The nurses are very upset. The way things are going, we are miles apart and the members are angry. It’s an insulting list of proposals.”

The NYPNU, which represents 1,100 workers, last went on strike in 1988, just four years after the group formed, recalled its president Maureen McCarthy, a nurse in the post-anesthesia care unit who has worked at the Upper East Side institution since the 1970s.

Since then, the NYPNU has issued 10-day strike notices for practically every contract negotiation — which means every three years, the nurses have voted to authorize a strike, if needed — McCarthy noted.

But while the union was negotiating with a bankrupt institution the last go-around in 2009, now it’s at the table with one that’s profitable, she pointed out.

It’s the NYPNU’s first time negotiating with North Shore LIJ, which bought Lenox Hill in 2010. The nurses accuse the mega-network of having put forward a series of proposals they believe would lower standards, instead of raising them and keeping them competitive with the Upper East Side’s nearby elite hospitals.  

The nurses worry that patients will simply walk a few blocks away to these other hospitals.

The hospital wants to reach “a fair contract that balances the needs of all parties, particularly as we prepare for healthcare reform and the many challenges facing the healthcare industry,” according to a message from Lenox Hill executive director Frank Danza, which the hospital posted online with other information about the contract negotiations.

In various materials the hospital posted to explain the rationale behind the changes, officials wrote that Lenox Hill, like other hospitals, is facing “unprecedented pressures,” citing that “government and commercial insurers are paying us less for the services we provide our patients even as our costs continue to rise.”

But NYPNU officials noted that North Shore LIJ had $6.3 billion in revenue last year, made $134 million in profits and claimed that it paid its CEO Micheal Dowling $3 million in 2010 — a hefty salary for a nonprofit head, they said.

Despite the raises North Shore is proposing, nurses salaries would effectively decrease compensation by 6 percent over the long term for the average nurse, according to NYPNU leaders.

Other changes the hospital has proposed include revamping the nurses’ health insurance, which presently requires no co-pay for benefits.  North Shore LIJ wants to implement a plan that would keep contributions at zero if nurses saw doctors in its network.

Many of Lenox Hill’s own doctors don’t even participate in this plan yet, requiring the nurses to trek to Long Island, where most North Shore participants are.

“That may work on Long Island, but it doesn’t work for our nurses, who come from Westchester, New Jersey and Manhattan,” McCarthy said.

The second option would allow nurses to keep their current plan with a contribution of $100 to $400 a month, according to hospital officials.

The nurses also blasted the proposal for changing another protection in their current contract that prohibits nurses from performing non-nursing functions like answering phones, stripping beds or other duties that clerks and aides do.

“We’re continuing to negotiate with the nurses' union and hope to reach an agreement before the contract expires,” said Lenox Hill spokeswoman Ann Silverman.

McCarthy said the union would “keep trying.”

“It’s not where we want to go,” she said about the possibility of a strike authorization, “but we will go there if we need to.”