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March 3, 2005

The Weekly Wrap

Nurses decry staffing levels at St. Joe's


The Weekly Wrap

WATER BOARD APPROVES SOME LOGGING: Following a packed hearing in Eureka's Wharfinger Building last week, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board gave Pacific Lumber Co. permission to log about half of its approved Timber Harvest Plans (THPs) in the Freshwater Creek and Elk River watersheds. Perhaps predictably, the decision -- made by the board's executive officer, Catherine Kuhlman -- disappointed both sides in the contentious battle over timber harvesting in the impaired watersheds. The company, which had argued that it would soon face financial ruin if the harvests were not approved, issued a press release saying that it would continue to negotiate with the board with the aim of getting the go-ahead on the rest of its plans, which have already been approved by the California Department of Forestry. Mark Lovelace of the Humboldt Watershed Council, the group that has led efforts to block the THPs, had a more mixed reaction. "We think it's great that the board is implementing this reduction in the rate of harvest," Lovelace said. But he added that he was worried about the precedent set by the decision, as well as a similar one made in January to benefit the company. "What we've seen so far is that every time they've asked for more, they've gotten it." Last week's Water Quality Control Board announcement comes in advance of the board's proposed new watershed-wide waste discharge requirements, which will likely limit the total amount of harvesting in the two watersheds to an amount designed to place the sediment-filled streams on the road to recovery. Pacific Lumber is expected to ask the board to approve additional plans at its March 16 meeting March 16 in Santa Rosa.

ARCATA CAMPAIGN FINANCES: Arcata City Council candidate Michael Winkler has outspent his five competitors combined, according to the last round of financial disclosure statements to be filed before the March 8 election. Winkler has spent around $6,500 in his bid for the one open seat on the council -- the great majority of the money he donated to his own campaign. Candidate Mark Wheetley has spent about $2,200. Both Winkler and Wheetley have bought print advertisements, signage, lists of registered voters and campaign-related sundries. Aside from Winkler's self-donation, the largest contribution received by either candidate was $150. The Mary Scoggin campaign has raised about $800, some of which she has used to buy radio spots. Greg Allen has raised a little over $200, which has gone into a Web site and assorted campaign paraphernalia. Neither Andrew Lord nor Nicholas Bravo reported any contributions or expenditures.

GLITCHES MAR OSCAR BROADCAST: While most Humboldt County residents enjoyed Sunday night's Academy Awards ceremony with no problems, pity those poor souls without cable or satellite service. Every few minutes, viewers tuned into local ABC affiliate KAEF-TV's broadcast leapt up in anger as picture and sound were suddenly replaced by static and white noise. Then, after an undetermined time, the signal would reappear -- only to go bye-bye again, usually at some critical moment. In this way, non-cable viewers missed most of Hilary Swank's and Jamie Foxx's stirring speeches. (We hear they were stirring, anyway). The final straw came with the award for Best Picture. As Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand fumbled with the envelope and joked with one another, broadcast viewers prayed for just a few more milliseconds of signal. Their prayers were not answered. Jeffrey Smoller, station manager of KAEF-TV (slogan: "Serving The Community"), said Tuesday that the signal problems have been ongoing for the last week and a half or so, and resulted from the failure of a key part at its Kneeland transmitter. He said his crew hoped to have everything back to normal this week.

RE-CYCLING BILL INTRODUCED: Bill Burton, director of the Arcata Library Bikes program, is a tireless advocate of bike-centric transportation. Last week, one part of his vision came closer to reality. Thanks to persistent lobbying from Burton and his colleagues from around the state, California State Assemblymember Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach) introduced AB 1103, the "reCycle bill." If the Legislature passes the bill, a $7 deposit surcharge would be added to the sale of new bicycles in the state -- much like the few cents added to soda bottles. People returning a used bicycle to a certified reCycle center would get $3 of the deposit back; the bikes could then be used in a free library program, much like the one he operates in Arcata. "The infrastructure of bikes has to exist in order for bicycling to be comfortable to people," Burton said Tuesday. "We're going to California and saying, `We've got the model.'"

A head-on collision must have rattled more than a few drivers passing through the Highway 101 "safety corridor" between Eureka and Arcata Monday afternoon. Miraculously, though, no one was gravely injured. At around 1:30 p.m., 20-year-old Eureka resident Terrance Davis was southbound and nearing the turnoff to Harper Motors when, for reasons still unknown, his 1984 Toyota Tercel swerved to the right and hit the guard rail. Davis lost control of the vehicle, which rebounded left and crossed the median into the northbound lanes. There, he smashed face-first into a 1990 Ford F250 pickup driven by 59-year-old Roy Dilley, also of Eureka. When the dust cleared, it was discovered that both Davis and Dilley suffered only minor injuries. A passenger in the Toyota, 27-year-old Eureka resident Shane Sovereign, was hospitalized with a broken leg.

TROOPS ARE BACK IN TOWN: Soldiers in the National Guard's 579th Engineering Battalion of the National Guard returned to California last week after serving close to a year in Iraq. A National Guard spokesman at the battalion headquarters in Santa Rosa said that 19 soldiers from the Eureka-based Bravo Company were among the battalion members that arrived in Petaluma last Thursday. Spc. Jessie Schager, 20, of Fortuna said it's great to be back, but the transition has been bittersweet. "I've had a bunch of mixed feelings: I'm happy to be home but I miss those guys I was over there with. We really formed a brothership, a bond that you can't break." Schager said that there is a chance he will be called back to duty in Iraq, but "hopefully" not for another two years. For now, he plans to move to Redding to join the SWAT team or a branch of law enforcement.

YOUTH WANT JELLO, TOO: A Humboldt State club that organized activist Jello Biafra's recent appearance at the university is steamed about a campus policy that they say discriminates against youth. The ageist allegations were made after the Network of Resistance club, which organized the event, was notified a week before the Feb. 19 event by the HSU Clubs and Activities office that anyone under 18 would not be allowed into the show. The notification was made in error, however. People of all ages are indeed allowed to attend speaking engagements at HSU. The confusion was the result of botched paperwork filled out by the Network of Resistance, which listed the event as a "dance," said Michael Wilcoxen, director of HSU Clubs and Activities. Dances and concerts that are held in the university center are only for those 18 and over. So, in the end, young ones were allowed into the Biafra event without a problem, but the Network of Resistance is still pressing the issue, calling for the university to allow students of all ages to all campus events. A petition calling for an end to "anti-youth, anti-community policies" was signed by more than 400 people at the event. The group plans to give the petition to HSU President Rollin Richmond in about one month. Anyone interested in signing the petition can call 825-0905.

NUKE FUEL RODS FOUND, MAYBE: Nuclear fuel rods that were reported missing from the Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s Humboldt Bay Power Plant last year may have been found. Fuel rods likely to be the nuke containers that the company was looking for have surfaced after seven months of searching the fuel storage pool at the bottom of the power plant, according to a company report to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). PG&E first reported to the NRC in late June that there was conflicting documentation from the late 1960s as to the whereabouts of three 18-inch fuel rods, indicating that one of two things happened -- either the rods had been shipped to another facility or stored in the fuel pool in Eureka. The rods that were found in late February are not 18 inches long, but the company speculates that the fragments are pieces of the original stainless steel containers and the remaining segments are probably elsewhere in the pool. In a written statement, Greg Rueger, PG&E senior vice president for generation and chief nuclear officer, said, " it is most likely that we have the cut fuel rod segments in our possession. Unfortunately, their condition after 40 years of being stored under other components in the pool makes positive identification extremely difficult." An investigation is continuing.

WASTING AWAY: If budget cuts proposed by President Bush take effect next year, local anti-hunger advocacy groups fear that people who already do not get enough to eat will be even hungrier if food programs, including Food Stamps, school meals, and Women Infants and Children (WIC) program, among others, are drained of resources. Anne Holcomb, executive director of Food for People Inc. in Eureka, Humboldt County's central food bank, said that most of the food the bank receives comes from the federal government, and if it is taken away needy people here will go hungry. Already, Humboldt County ranks third among California counties in "food insecurity," or people who feel uncertain of where their next meal will come from, according to the food bank. Food for People, which distributes food to 27 pantries in the county -- locations like the Arcata Endeavor and St. Vincent de Paul -- serves a majority of fixed-income people, including seniors. "Right now we have seniors choosing between medication and food. If we take more food away from them we're going to see costs further down the line, when their health fails, and they lose their independence and have to go to a nursing home," Holcomb said. A provision in Bush's budget is aimed at encouraging people to donate more food to charities by offering tax breaks to those who give groceries to the needy.

SENIORS SAVE ON DRUG MONEY: Low-income seniors have until March 31 to enroll for a prescription drug discount, according to Medicare Today, a nonprofit public advocacy group. Medicare beneficiaries -- those ages 65 and older with individual income less than $12,569 or $16,862 for a couple -- can receive a $600 credit toward their prescriptions. Those who apply after the March 31 deadline will be eligible for a $450 credit. Call (800) MEDICARE for details.

Nurses decry staffing levels at St. Joe's

by Bob Doran

Members of the California Nurses Association (CNA) picketed outside St. Joseph Hospital of Eureka Feb. 22, airing a list of complaints about the management of the hospital, chief among them the contention that staffing levels are dangerously low.

"There are increased issues of patient health being compromised at our hospital. They are violating staffing regulations both from the federal level and the state level," said Lavon Divine-Leal, a medical-surgical unit nurse who has been at St. Joe's for 30 years.

"It's profit verses patient, clearly," said Kathryn Donahue, chief nurse rep for the local CNA chapter. "Our hospital says, `No that isn't true,' but we live it day in day out."

While Donahue and Divine-Leal both claim nurses are regularly assigned too many patients, resulting in a threat to patient safety, Mary Anne McCrea, the hospital's chief operating officer, said the hospital has adequate staff "to meet the needs of our patients and our patients' safety."

"We are proud of the hospital's record of patient safety," McCrea said.

Central to the nurses' concerns is the implementation of a January 2004 state law, which made California the first state in the country to establish minimum nurse-to-patient ratios for all hospital units. Local CNA leaders contend that St. Joe's is not following those strict guidelines.

Again McCrea disputes the nurses' accusation, writing in an e-mail response to questions from the Journal, "Our compliance with mandatory staff ratios was validated twice this past year by the Department of Health Services (DHS), which is the agency responsible for monitoring and enforcement. On two separate visits, DHS surveyed St. Joseph Hospital, confirmed that we are in compliance, and even said that we are substantially above the requirements in several areas."

The nurses are also at odds with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who signed an executive order last November that significantly alters the nurse-patient ratio rules.

One change under the order maintains the 1-to-6 nurse-patient ratio in medical-surgical units established in 2004, halting a shift to 1-to-5 originally scheduled for January 2005.

Another change is in rules for emergency rooms, where 1-to-4 ratios are mandated. The changed regulations allow hospitals to flex to higher ratios when an unforeseen influx of patients shows up in the ER, as long as the hospital strives to increase staffing "as soon as possible."

According to Jan Emerson, spokesperson for the California Hospital Association, an industry lobbying group, "The jury is still out as to whether numeric ratios for every unit are the best way to staff. In many units the ratios make sense, but the biggest areas the hospitals have had trouble with are emergency rooms (ER), which by their very nature are unpredictable, and the medical-surgical units, typically the most common units of a hospital."

According to Donahue, the local nurse, "ER is the primary area that was affected. They're saying that you don't need to staff for `unexpected volume increases,' except you frequently have unexpected volumes -- that's the nature of the ER -- that's the reality day in, day out."

The third change is a suspension of what is known as the "at all times" requirement for short-term breaks. "If a nurse stepped away to go to the bathroom, or take any kind of break, she was supposed to reassign all her patients to another nurse," Emerson explained. "That meant you had to have extra nurses on the unit `at all times' simply for the purpose of reassigning for potty breaks or phone calls."

In an opinion piece about health care financing run in the Times Standard earlier this week, St. Joseph Health System CEO Mike Purvis suggests that California should "permanently modify the `at all times' interpretation of nurse-to-patient ratios and acute flexibility in emergency department ratios."

"Hospitals are a dynamic environment where we don't get to choose the volume of patients. The volume of patients chooses us, and we have to respond," said Emerson. "And when you put all these very restrictive regulations on hospitals and don't allow for flexibility, it makes our work very difficult."

Donahue countered that the governor is just playing to his corporate pals. "Schwarzenegger is helping corporations to do what they like to do, which is make profits and give money to the higher end of administration for their salaries, their benefits, their housing allowances, their own pensions. It's the corporate system: The top gets a lot of money, then they see how little they can get away with to keep the bottom functioning."

Donahue and Divine-Leal both place the blame for staffing problems and a breakdown in relationship between nurses and the administration on McCrea.

"We've had to make difficult decisions, some of which have been unpopular," said McCrea. "Frankly, we share some of the nurses' frustration at the pace of resolving many of these issues, but it would be unfortunate to try to turn this into a personality question when there are such important issues at stake and the administration and staff are working hard to resolve them in good faith."

It's not likely that disagreements over staffing ratios will be resolved soon. Schwarzenegger's emergency suspension is set to expire March 11, 120 days after it was declared, and the CNA is lobbying hard to stop it from being extended or made permanent.

But even before that Schwarzenegger's changes to ratio rules will be challenged in a lawsuit filed by the CNA in Sacramento Superior Court. The nurses will be out in numbers in Sacramento on Friday, March 4, as their suit goes before a judge.


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