Nurses Accuse UC of Misspending

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Union nurses accused University of California hospital administrators Monday of misspending $29 million last year--including $5.9 million at UCI Medical Center--to hire temporary registry nurses.

Leaders in the California Nurses Assn., representing all 6,000 UC nurses, also complained that the five university medical centers were willing to pay up to $43 an hour for temporary help while they paid their staff nurses only $15.50 to $18.42 an hour.

Calling the situation "a case study in how not to recruit and retain nurses," a union leader charged that fees paid to registries had increased at an "astounding" rate--640% over the previous year at UCI, for instance.

According to the union, UCI's registry use jumped from $22,714 in 1986-87 to $791,141 in 1987-88. That figure increased to $5.9 million last fiscal year, union officials said.

The hospital, which posted an $11.6-million deficit in the last fiscal year, has a regular staff of 837 nurses and a 21% turnover rate, the nurses' union said. Administrators at the medical center in Orange have blamed the deficits on the increasing cost of treating indigent patients.

In a brief response, administrators at UCI Medical Center said they "do not believe that paying nurses more will eliminate the need for registry nurses" because registries are used for "short-term and sometimes spontaneous needs."

Also, they attributed 60% of the "dramatic increase" in registry fees at UCI to a sharp increase last year in maternity deliveries and postpartum care.

They also noted that the medical center's pay scale, which has nine graduated levels, was a response to the market, as well as to "our desire to reward long-term professional nurses."

The administrators issued the prepared statement through medical center spokeswoman Elaine Beno but declined to reveal their names.

Leaders of the nurses' union made their complaints one day before they are scheduled to hold a key bargaining session in Berkeley with UC negotiators. They said they had "uncovered" the registry budget figures during recent wage negotiations. Earlier this month, the nurses reopened their two-year contract negotiations, seeking a more generous maternity leave as well as wage hikes.

According to the nurses, UCLA Medical Center spent $12 million last year on registry nurses, UC Medical Center San Francisco spent $5.5 million, UC Davis spent $3.7 million and UC San Diego spent $1.7 million.

They complained, however, that "registries are meant to be used to fill short-termgaps, not as a regular staffing option," UC Davis nurse Katherine Sweeney said. At UCI, nurse Karen Fuchek warned: "They (administrators) should realize if they don't increase wages, a lot more nurses are going to leave."

Fuchek said that UCI nurses had recently been offered a 3.5% raise in November and another 3.5% raise in May when "nurses really want 10% up front."

She argued that using temporary nursing help was "wasteful" not only because of the expense but because "there's no continuity of care. They put them (nurses) on one floor for four hours, then another floor for four hours and mistakes can happen," she warned. "Medication errors, a lack of follow-through. An order written and the registry nurse doesn't see it."

Rose Ann DeMoro, chief negotiator for the nurses' union, said the temporary nurses typically get paid time and a half for overtime and double time after midnight, whereas UC nurses are paid only straight time during those hours. A UC nurse may enjoy the high standards of a teaching hospital, DeMoro said, but frequently, after the nurse works alongside a registry nurse, the staff nurse may decide to quit and join the registry.

Fuchek noted: "It's an easy solution to offer nurses more money to keep them. They spend so much on the registry. Why don't they spend it on staff nurses?"

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