Nurses declare state of emergency at SFGH amid contract negotiations

Nurses declared a state of emergency at San Francisco General Hospital on Thursday, pointing to new data that shows the hospital is turning away patients from emergency services at greater rates than last year.

While the Department of Public Health denied that the hospital is in a state of emergency, the nurses — represented by Service Employees International Union Local 1021 — are calling for increased staffing to reduce the clogged up emergency room at the hospital.

With their contract expiring June 30, the registered nurses have been undergoing salary negotiations with SFGH and have been rallying against understaffing at the hospital.

In three weeks the hospital plans to move into its new $1 billion trauma center, which will increase the number of beds and overall space of the emergency room.

“The nurses are negotiating their salaries,” said DPH Director of Health Barbara Garcia. “We anticipated that they would be doing this. We hired hundreds of nurses for the new hospital.”

Last month, the emergency room in the current building was “on diversion” 62 percent of the time, meaning patients in stable condition were redirected to another center, according to data released at Health Commission Joint Conference Committee on Tuesday. In comparison, the diversion rate was 38 percent in March 2015 and 36 percent in the same month of 2014.

“We just don’t have the staffing to reach all the patients,” said Will Carpenter, an Emergency Department nurse at a union rally in front of the hospital Thursday. Still, “we have to take the really sick patients.”

Psychiatric Emergency Services at the hospital, which treats and evaluates patients with mental health issues, was also on “condition red,” which also means patients are redirected, for some 300 hours last month, or about twice as many hours as in March 2014.

“They have to be brought somewhere else,” said Jeanette Conley, a nurse in Psychiatric Emergency Services, who noted that there are limited psychiatric beds elsewhere in The City, with two other units at St. Francis Memorial Hospital.

According to DPH, which acknowledged in a statement there are “gaps in our system of psychiatric care,” the problem is not related to staffing but available space. The department plans to add 10 beds for patients who do not need acute mental health care.

The hospital also plans to hire new nurses to provide psychiatric screenings to speed up the process and a portion of a $350 million bond measure slated for the June ballot could be spent on seismically renovating the existing main hospital and creating more space for psychiatric care.

“Everywhere they’re going in The City, they’re getting turned away,” Jennifer Friedenbach, head of the Coalition on Homelessness, told a crowd of union demonstrators Thursday. “We’re not treating mental health the way we’re treating other issues.”

As a result, “many” of the people who need mental health attention “end up dead,” Friedenbach said.

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