St. Charles Health System cuts “traveling nurse” contracts to stem pandemic losses

(Update: Added video, comments from St. Charles COO, ONA spokesperson)

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – St. Charles Health System is cutting contract “travel nurse” jobs added during the critical staffing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic as they work to balance the books amid operating losses and dismal financial results reported by hospitals in the state.

NewsChannel 21 reached out to the organization this week after a local woman contacted us saying her husband’s surgery was recently canceled just hours before it was scheduled.

The man said his doctor had told him about the cuts to traveling nurses and that he would be better off operating elsewhere due to a lack of beds for his overnight stay.

Oregon Nurses Association Communications Manager Kevin Milley told NewsChannel 21 on Wednesday, “There are about 300-plus nursing vacancies in Saint Charles Bend alone, so commuters play a key role in helping to fill that gap. “

St. Charles Health System COO Iman Simmons said travel nurses fill employment gaps when full-time employees take extended leave, for example.

“We use travel nurses to fill in, like when someone goes on family leave,” she said. “We lack a permanent member of staff, so we hire or bring in our nurses who travel.”

The development comes after a report released by Oregon hospitals said they finished 2022 in the red due to staff shortages, rising costs and stagnant revenue.

As part of its move to stop the red ink, St. Charles is reducing the hiring of higher-priced traveling nurses, bringing the numbers down to what they call a normal pre-pandemic level.

Although the Oregon Nurses Association represents full-time staff, not temporary contract employees, they did not welcome the news, saying it could make a difficult situation worse.

Millie explained, “We were already in a code red situation with nurses in Bend, and losing more staff just puts us even deeper in the hole.”

Simmons said, “Our vacancy rate for all nurses is 20 percent.”

Although St. Charles is cutting back on hiring more nurses for now, they say many are still helping critical parts of the four hospitals.

“We currently have a zero vacancy rate in our intensive care units,” Simmons said. “So it’s an uneven level of unemployment in nursing, with the highest rate being procedural and ‘medical jump’ or acute care nursing.”

Although rescheduling and even cancellation of operations is not uncommon, lack of staff and beds is a problem.

Simmons added that turning away patients is never a measure they want to take.

“If an operation was canceled because we didn’t have a bed for the patient to recover – we work hard to prevent that,” she said. “So if the patient is recovering and ready to be discharged home or discharged to a skilled nursing facility, we try to make sure that happens in a timely manner.”

Millie claims: “And with St. Charles, we know they’re already closing beds because they don’t have enough staff to care for the patients.”

In a statement previously provided to NewsChannel 21, Simmons said, “St. Charles is actively working to reduce his reliance on expensive contract labor as part of his pandemic recovery plans. Retaining our highly skilled workforce and recruiting new permanent staff is one of the key strategies necessary for our long-term financial viability, as well as the continued delivery of the highest quality of patient care.”

“We have made significant progress in hiring clinical caregivers and our nurse vacancy rate is the lowest it has been in several years,” Simmons added. “We are constantly monitoring our staffing levels and will close patient beds and adjust surgery and procedure schedules as necessary. As always, patient safety is our top priority.”

The temporary hiring of dozens of higher-paid contract nurses — some from the hospital, some provided by the state — came amid a pandemic that in the summer of 2021 had 93 percent of Oregon hospital beds occupied. The National Guard was also called in to assist hospitals in various ways and to assist in mass vaccination clinics. And numerous planned surgeries were canceled or delayed for many months.

Recently, in a rare, united move, the state’s hospitals and health care professional unions agreed, after months of negotiations, on proposals to state lawmakers that would make Oregon the first state in the nation to set nurse-to-patient ratios, among other steps.

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