PONTIAC, Mich. (CN) - Seven nurses sued a hospital in Commerce Township, Michigan, claiming patients went several days without baths and were forced to sit in their own feces and urine because management refuses to address staffing shortages.
The nurses’ union, Michigan Nurses Association, joined them Thursday in an Oakland County Circuit Court complaint alleging a violation of the Michigan Public Health Code.
Attorney Shirlee Bobryk of the Lansing firm White Schneider filed the lawsuit on their behalf, seeking a court order forcing Huron Valley-Sinai Hospital to comply with Michigan law and accept nurses’ written notices of any violations.
The union’s affiliate, Professional Nurses Association of Huron Valley-Sinai Hospital, represents the 350 nurses at the hospital. Its president, veteran nurse Kathleen Lehman, said that over the last year, nurses had been filling out forms noting their objection to conditions at the hospital but managers refused to accept them.
With the hospital’s current nurse-to-patient ratios, she says she has not had enough time to spend with patients and their families.
“I would like to see more nurses, more patient care associates and more clerks and other ancillary staff hired into this for-profit organization that I believe they can afford to do to take care of our loved ones, our friends, and our patients,” Lehman said in a phone interview on Friday.
The hospital’s owner, Detroit Medical Center, pushed back against the union’s lawsuit, accusing it of using media interest in the case as leverage in upcoming contract negotiations and asserting that staffing levels at the hospital fall within national guidelines and that the hospital is safe.
"Unfortunately, the union has chosen to use patient safety as a bargaining tactic, which we will not do nor will we negotiate with them in the media,” DMC Chief Nursing Officer Lori Stallings-Sicard said in an emailed statement. “We maintain one robust system for monitoring quality of care that all staff are trained on and expected to use to submit potential patient or employee safety issue concerns. We question the validity and accuracy of information derived from any other non-approved tracking source."
The hospital received an “A” grade from hospital safety nonprofit Leapfrog, which measures 27 factors to reach its score, including steps to avoid harm, safe medication administration, and hospital injuries and infections.
DMC said that since 2012, it has received 12 consecutive straight “A” ratings from Leapfrog. Only two other hospitals in Michigan have received that rating, and only 58 others in the nation.
Leapfrog conducts no on-site visits, and does not consider nurse-to-patient ratios, the Detroit Free Press reported.
The Free Press said that union officials had told reporters that the union was only fighting for quality care in the hospital.
“We don’t want a strike. This isn’t what this is all about. We want to provide quality care,” said Jeanie Kindermann, a union executive and nurse.
The lawsuit says that between January and September of this year, the registered nurses tried to submit 240 written notices of unsafe practices and conditions in Huron Valley-Sinai Hospital, where there are 158 licensed beds.
The notices cited instances where patients faced delays in receiving medications or suffered falls, and the hospital failed to deliver basic hygiene and care, according to the complaint. The nurses say patients were left sitting in their urine and feces and staff did not attend to them during life-threatening situations.
In a statement, the Michigan Nurses Association said that some patients did not take baths for several days because of staffing shortages.
The notices mentioned 160 instances where nurses worked without breaks or lunches or were forced to work overtime. They say that the violations were documented on each occasion.
The complaint alleges hospital managers refused to accept or acknowledge complaints.
The plaintiff nurses – Donna Cross, Janet Hoover, Ann Kastelen, Kathleen Lehman, Judy Moore, Julie Skidmore and Jennifer Vella – are all members of the Michigan Nurses Association, which is the exclusive bargaining representative for registered nurses at the hospital, located about 40 miles northwest of Detroit.
Professional Nurses Association of Huron Valley-Sinai Hospital was formed in March 2016 and is in the process of bargaining for its first contract. In a news release, the union said nurses are negotiating for more staff and safer working conditions.
Nurse Kastelen says that she was forced to work in dangerous conditions on May 27 during a 12 ½-hour shift. According to the lawsuit, she had to care for a 2-week-old baby. She believed that two nurses were needed to intubate the baby but says her manager did not provide for more staff.
The complaint goes on to detail other alleged incidents this year, during which the hospital was understaffed while treating a suicidal patient and two others who were physically violent.
Normal staffing for 45 patients would include 11 registered nurses, two aides, and a clerk or secretary, according to the lawsuit.
Nurse Hoover says during her shift on April 12, there were only six or seven registered nurses available.
The nurses say that in each instance, the hospital refused to acknowledge the notices and did nothing to address conditions in the hospital.
Under Michigan's Public Health Code, employees who blow the whistle on unsafe practices and conditions can claim immunity from civil and criminal prosecutions and cannot be discharged or discriminated against for revealing such conduct, the complaint notes.
DMC reportedly acquired the hospital in 1997. Tennessee health company Vanguard Health Systems bought out DMC for $1.5 billion in 2010, and Dallas multinational Tenet Healthcare Corporation purchased Vanguard for $1.8 billion three years later, according to the union.
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