Workers defend hospital labor costs

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Santa Cruz Sentinel

Santa Cruz, CA — After a report before county supervisors last week showed that local hospitals have some of the highest labor costs in the nation, many residents are asking: how much is too much to pay nurses and other hospital staff?

The Medicare Wage Index study indicates labor costs per patient in Santa Cruz County hospitals are 36 percent more than the national average. Those costs can help push patients’ bills higher than those who get similar services elsewhere in the country.

Salaries were sampled for nurses and other hospital staffers across a range of medical treatments, and a sampling of nurses’ salaries in the county show some can make $100,000 a year or more. Doctor salaries were not factored into the study.

But county officials, economists and health experts surveyed agree that to attract nurses one of the most expensive counties in the nation, hospitals must pay them accordingly.

“I guess it’s really a result of marketplace forces,” said County Supervisor Neal Coonerty. “I was surprised that we were ranked number one, but I think [nurses] deserve every penny they get. It’s a tough, tough job.”

John Simpson, of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Los Angeles, agreed. Nurses, whose profession was once associated with lower wages, are finally making what they are worth, he said.

“That they need to be able to be paid well enough to live where they work is a very sound argument,” Simpson said. “I think that’s, in fact, absolutely essential to making sure that there’s quality health care for the people of California.”

Nurses at Dominican Hospital, one of three in the county, can make $40-$50 an hour after five years’ experience. While not all nurses work full time, that translates into between $83,000 and $110,000 each year for those who do. Those wages are much higher than the national average of about $29/hour or $70,000/year, as reported by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Nurses must hold a two-year associates degree and complete a two-year nursing program before starting work.

“To get a quality education and to get somebody that has been mentored in a quality sort of way, it will cost the community something to provide that,” said Lorna Grundeman, a Dominican Hospital nurse with 19 years experience and a member of the California Nurses’ Association union board.

One way for patients to avoid higher hospital costs is not to use the hospital at all, said Larry deGhetaldi, chief operating officer of Sutter Santa Cruz Maternity and Surgery Center. Instead, he said, patients should take advantage of primary care doctors and use the emergency room only when absolutely necessary.

In addition, he said, the federal government must get rid of arcane Medicare rules that pay doctors here 25 percent less to see patients than what physicians earn in Silicon Valley. That would encourage more primary care doctors to locate in Santa Cruz County, helping to keep more patients out of the hospital.

The solution, deGhetaldi said, “is not, ‘lower hospital workers wages,’ We need to restore an equilibrium here.”
Contact Genevieve Bookwalter at [email protected]

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