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WA Nurses Express Concern About Allowing Non-Essential Procedures

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Hospitals in Washington may soon be allowed to resume performing non-essential medical procedures. Hospital administrators are pleased about that, but the union that represents nurses isn’t.

Non-essential procedures provide steady streams of revenue for hospital systems. Sometimes those are cosmedic.

“But this is also folks living in chronic pain who need to have a total knee or hip replacement. This is slow-growing cancers in some cases," said Jacqueline Barton True, vice president of rural health programs for the Washington State Hospital Association.

“There’s a huge amount of things that we call elective because they don’t have to be done right now to save a life, but really do impact the quality of life," True said.

With the epidemic, the governor ordered hospitals to postpone those procedures. Now, he appears open to easing that restriction.

But there are still hurdles to overcome.

“We certainly understand everybody’s desire to get people back to work, including nurses and other health care providers, but we still have concerns related to adding back those elective procedures because we’re still hearing a lot from our members related to the shortage of personal protective equipment," said Sally Watkins, executive director of the Washington State Nurses Association.

“I will not forget hearing the sound of one of our nurse member’s voice cracking when trying to explain the conditions that she’s working under, shift after shift, with patients getting sicker and dying and her feelings of helplessness," said WSNA President Lynnette Vehrs in a video posted on the nurses association website.

The union has also posted an online petition that demands several things. It asks hospital administrators to provide more PPE. It asks hospitals to provide secure locations for workers to change out of their soiled uniforms. The union asks for a five-dollar-an-hour pay increase to compensate for the increased risk of working with coronavirus patients and paid leave for nurses not allowed to work because they were exposed to the virus.

“The other thing we have some concerns about is making sure we have better testing capability before we go down that road because we’re also hearing about delays and not necessarily seeing that everybody who needs to get tested is getting tested," Watkins said.

The union has collected about 18,000 signatures on its petition.

Alan Fisher says he understands and agrees with some of the union’s concerns, especially about the need for more PPE. Fisher is the CEO at Mid-Valley Hospital in Omak. But he believes the union’s stance threatens to stop the momentum to getting hospitals back to doing non-essential procedures.

“I think we need to ask the question of ‘How can we?’, rather than ‘Why can’t we?’" Fisher said. "We do that, we all work together. We’ll be able then to put some type of elective surgery program together, present it to the governor, one that makes sense and go forward.”

Fisher says hospital officials will continue to try to convince the governor that would be in the best interests of the state.