Large hospital systems have been cutting staff for years. The dire consequences of this are now evident amid the pandemic.
Ascension is a large hospital system with numerous locations. As such, one would think that it would be well-equipped to serve the needs of its patients, responding promptly in emergency situations and providing adequate care. However, for the past few years, this hasn’t been the case. This is because, prior to the pandemic, the company began aggressively reducing its staff in order to increase profits. Now that COVID-19 is a permanent fixture on society, the hospital system is struggling to find help and patient complaints abound.
At one of Ascension’s locations, in a Chicago suburb, there were so few nurses that psychiatric patients with COVID were left waiting a full day for beds. One person was on the floor with 32 infected patients at any given time. At another location, near Flint, Michigan, staffing issues led to patients being totally neglected, lying in dried feces, while robots replaced nursing assistants sitting with mentally patients. This dire situation exists in spite of the fact that the chain is a nonprofit organization with nearly $18 billion of cash reserves.
The rapid onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the panic that came along with it caused a large influx in hospital patients, whether there to treat symptoms or to treat secondary conditions. Nurses quickly became overwhelmed, and many left their hospital positions for outpatient care or left the field altogether. For those who stayed the course, burnout became a big issue. It wasn’t long before it became evident that vastly reducing staff prior to the virus was a big mistake.
More than half of the 5,000 hospitals in the United States are nonprofits, according to the New York Times. And, in order to maintain their tax-exempt status, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) requires them to offer services that will benefit the community, including free health care for low-income patients. However, a recent investigation uncovered a harsh reality that these nonprofits (especially since the start of the pandemic) have illegally and aggressively billed thousands of patients who fall into this category. They’ve also allocated the best resources to affluent communities while skimping on services in poverty stricken areas. And, in order to save a buck, these hospital systems have engage in mass layoffs.
Ascension runs 139 hospitals, which is among the most of any chain in the nation. As recently as 2019, Ascension execs were boasting about the chain’s ability to reduce labor costs by $500 million by decreasing the number of employees per occupied bed and refusing to take on new hires. In Michigan alone, in 2021, the chain had 1,100 nursing vacancies.
In addition to Ascension, at St. Joseph in Illinois and Genesys in Michigan, nurses belonged to unions that began tracking mass staffing cuts and maintaining logs of unsafe conditions. As a result, nurses’ complaints began to be well-documented.
“You feel awful because you know you’re not turning these patients,” said Jillian Wahlfors, a nurse at Genesys. “You know they’re getting their meds late. You don’t have time to listen to them. They’re having accidents, because you can’t get in fast enough to take them to the bathroom.”
Other nurses had similar points-of-view.
Nick Ragone, an Ascension spokesperson, denied that cost-cutting contributed to staffing shortages during the pandemic. He called this assertion “fundamentally misguided.” But Ragone is not on the frontlines with the staff who is trying to keep things afloat. For those who are, staffing shortages are a very real problem that will likely not be corrected anytime soon.