BANGOR, Maine — Representatives from the labor union representing two Eastern Maine Medical Center nurses who will be reassigned next week took their dispute public Friday in an effort to overturn a decision they say isn’t good for pediatric cancer patients.
Cokie Giles, an EMMC nurse and president of the Maine State Nurses Association, told reporters that the hospital’s decision to switch the location of outpatient pediatric oncology services, such as chemotherapy, would deprive young patients of the care they are used to from nurses they know and enjoy. Brown said the change also will force the two affected nurses, who she said have a combined 50 years of experience, to start new jobs at EMMC.
“We don’t think it’s fair that they are going to remove these two highly skilled nurses from their fields,” said Giles. “All their years of education and experience [are] not going to be used where” they always have been.
At issue is a plan to switch the site of some outpatient pediatric oncology services from the hospital’s Pediatric Oncology Clinic to the Inpatient Pediatrics Unit. The switch, which requires the reassignment of two nurses, is scheduled to take place Monday, according to a press release from the union. The rest of the services offered by the Pediatric Oncology Clinic will not be affected.
Dr. Sarah Fryberger, an oncologist on the unit, said care there will be just as high-quality as it is at the clinic.
“These are extremely trying financial times,” said Fryberger. “Eastern Maine Medical Center made this difficult decision to be fiscally responsible.”
Mikele Neal, the nurse manager of the Inpatient Pediatrics Unit, said many of the affected patients already know the doctors and nurses there from previous hospital stays. And because it’s a pediatric unit, she added, staff members are well-versed in ensuring that young patients and their families are as comfortable as possible for treatment that can last anywhere from 15 minutes to three or four hours.
“We do everything we can to make the environment homey and comfortable for the patients and their families. We have people who are able to provide support beyond medical considerations,” said Neal, who estimated that the switch would affect treatment for an average of one patient a day.
The Pediatric Oncology Clinic now is treating 16 patients, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Union representatives didn’t deny that staff members on the pediatric unit are capable, but argued that the switch in location and personnel will be difficult for young patients who have built relationships with the two displaced nurses. Barbara Lambarida, the labor representative for the Maine State Nurses Association, said the nurses would have to be retrained for jobs they’ve never done.
The hospital offered both of them positions in the adult rehabilitation unit, but one could not accept because of physical limitations that prevent her from lifting or being on her feet for too long. Lambarida said that person has been put on medical leave, which means she’ll be paid until her vacation and sick time runs out.
The hospital “can call it whatever they want, but this is a layoff,” said Lambarida, who said the woman will be forced to pay the full cost of her health insurance after her paid time off is exhausted.
Asked why the affected nurses weren’t talking with reporters, Lambarida said the union is trying to “shield them.”
Jill McDonald, spokeswoman for the hospital, declined to discuss specific employees, but said EMMC has an ongoing commitment to retain as many employees as possible. “We do our best to maintain employment in every case that we can,” said McDonald. “We can’t guarantee it.”
McDonald said moving outpatient oncology services is the latest in a yearlong string of initiatives designed to reduce EMMC operating costs. She said the slack economy has led to lower patient volumes but that the underlying reason for the initiatives is a big-picture effort to reduce the cost of health care.
“The cost of care is difficult to afford for some people and it seems to keep climbing,” she said. “We have been working on this for a long time. Every time we make a change like this we’re able to slowly reduce our costs.”
Fryberger said that in the long run, everyone including patients will adjust to the change.
“There will be a stressful period of change,” she said. “That’s the nature of life.”