Short staffing at UC hospitals is putting patients at risk 

As patients, we expect our hospital rooms, beds and operating tables to be clean and sanitized. We expect medical equipment that works and sufficient numbers of patient-care staff to be available when we call for help. We expect facilities to be safe and secure. And we expect to be treated just as well as any other patient.

According to a new whistle-blower report from frontline care providers at UC medical centers, the state’s fourth-largest health care delivery system is too often failing to meet these standards.

This is troubling both for the 4 million Californians that rely on UC for care and the taxpayers who provide these facilities with more than $300 million in funding each year.

Over the past five years, independent watchdogs have highlighted many problems: “systemic failures (putting) patients at increased risk for infection or even death” at UC Davis; bed sores and “immediate jeopardy” findings at UC San Francisco; alarming rates of urinary tract infections and a $1.2 million federal settlement charging fraud and patient neglect at UC Irvine; and even an “F” rating in patient safety for UCLA Medical Center.

Now whistle-blowers are relaying firsthand accounts of other deficiencies: dried blood and other fluids on an operating table; broken equipment; priority care for well-connected “VIPs”; and chronic under-staffing of security, custodial and frontline care functions — leaving hospital areas unprotected or undersanitized, and patients more vulnerable to infection, falls or worse.

UC medical centers grossed $6.9 billion last year — up more than 16 percent from three years ago — and banked hundreds of millions in profits.

So where is all that money going?

Since 2009, “management” payroll at UC Health Facilities has grown by $100 million. Hospital CEOs have seen raises as big as $100 an hour, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses. Debt payments for new facilities in San Francisco, San Diego and elsewhere have quadrupled, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

New UC policies have given hospital executives incentives to maximize revenues and cut costs without meaningful oversight. Too often, the cuts disproportionately impact patient care.

This includes dramatic increases in the use of undertrained temporary workers and volunteers for frontline care. It means fewer nursing aides often sharing responsibility for a larger number of patients. And for those who staff everything from surgical teams to cleaning crews, it means growing pressure to do their jobs faster and with fewer people.

Consider the case of highly profitable UCSF Medical Center. Despite recent problems with bed sores, state Department of Public Health fines and rationing of respiratory care due to staffing shortages, UCSF just began eliminating 300 jobs — many of them frontline care staff.

Instead, UCSF is buying billboard ads all over town and has increased its annual management payroll by $16 million since 2009. Its CEO Mark Laret — one of 36 highly paid UC executives who recently threatened a lawsuit demanding millions in extra pension benefits — is expected to get a $300,000 bonus on top of his million-dollar salary this year, or $1,000 for every job he cuts.

Frontline staff know what it takes to deliver top-flight care, and they want UC to be the crown jewel of California’s health delivery system. But time and again, these devoted health professionals are being told that despite the UC medical system’s swelling budgets, executive payroll costs and profit margins, they need to do more with less.

Is that really a message we want to send patients — our friends, families and neighbors — when they put their lives in UC’s hands?

UC needs to get its priorities straight.

Kathryn Lybarger is the president of AFSCME 3299, which represents more than 22,000 Service and Patient Care Technical Workers at the University of California’s 10 campuses and five medical centers.

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