MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Twin Cities nurses may have made a breakthrough in deciding patient workloads, but some experts think their salary increases will be eradicated by health insurance rates.
Minnesota Nurses Association members from nine out of 12 metro hospitals ratified new contracts with their employers by Saturday with one more scheduled to vote Monday. The ratified contracts call for staffing language geared toward patient workloads, longevity bonuses and salary increases. The votes averted what was initially planned to be a strike of 7,700 registered nurses -- the largest of its kind.
About 1,500 nurses from two hospitals rejected their offers and took to the picket lines Sunday morning.
The ratified agreements will give nurses more control over deciding patient workloads. The members had argued they were overworked with too few nurses to take care of too many patients.
"This is the beginning of a change," said Elizabeth Shogren, a lead negotiator for two hospitals which approved their contracts Saturday. "It doesn't go as far as we need it to go, but in my estimation it's groundbreaking."
Negotiators from United Hospital in St. Paul and Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids agreed to change the staffing at some overworked units, such as the emergency department, so that they're always ready to handle peak demand. Other hospitals set up management-labor committees and may be forced to turn away patients from a unit that is understaffed.
"I don't think it's something that can be truly resolved in the contracts alone," said Shireen Gandhi-Kozel, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Hospital and Healthcare Partnership, which represents the hospitals. "Closing units doesn't solve our bigger problem of what do we do as more and more people are using health care services."
Another key issue in the dispute was adequate pay. New contracts call for some nurses to receive as much as a 20.8 percent pay increase over three years. Longevity bonuses are also part of the deals. The increases rank in the middle to upper brackets of pay raises nationally for unionized nurses, according to a national nurses labor association.
But some industry observers and experts say the contracts could mean additional cuts and consolidations.
The pay increases, which could place Twin Cities nurses among the highest paid in the country, may lead to higher health insurance premiums.
University of Minnesota professor Roger Feldman said the premiums could rise 2 percent as a result of the new contracts.
Industry consultant and former Twin Cities hospital company chief executive officer Donald Wegmiller agreed the raises could create more problems.
"They won't have any other choice but to cut. There's no way they can absorb that kind of increase," Wegmiller said.
Thirteen area hospitals that negotiated new contracts this year paid $365 million in wages to registered nurses in 1999. The new contracts would raise that by an estimated $76 million in three years.
"Across the board, it will have a negative financial impact," said Bruce Gordon, an analyst with Moody's Investor Services in New York.
A hike in overall labor costs would come as most Twin Cities health care systems are emerging from up to five years of declining profits and aggressive cost-cutting measures.
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