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‘Plain old greed:’ HCA nurses rally to denounce understaffing, unsafe conditions at hospitals

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‘Plain old greed:’ HCA nurses rally to denounce understaffing, unsafe conditions at hospitals

Nov 30, 2023 | 5:00 pm ET
By Jackie Llanos
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‘Plain old greed:’ HCA nurses rally to denounce understaffing, unsafe conditions at hospitals
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HCA Healthcare nurses with the National Nurses Organizing Committee rally at the HCA West Florida Division Office in Tampa on Nov. 30, 2023. Photo by Mitch Perry.

Judy Preuss, an ICU nurse at HCA Florida Oak Hill Hospital, joined the National Nurses Organizing Committee 13 years ago for the same reason she rallied Thursday afternoon in Tampa with colleagues from other parts of the country: Bargaining to fix understaffing.

Oak Hill Hospital, where Preuss has worked for 18 years, is one of HCA Healthcare’s 46 hospitals in Florida. The nurses from the union representing 10,000 registered nurses across the U.S. held a rally at the HCA West Florida Division Office in Tampa. There, they held signs with the phrase, “Hey HCA, put patients over profit.”

The contract for the union expires next year.

“Pretty much every nurse will tell you the same thing: The staffing is the main reason. We just all want to take care of our patients the way that we would want our mother to be taken care of or ourselves to be taken care of,” Pruess told the Florida Phoenix. “We want them to get the proper care. We don’t want to put profits over patients, and there’s nothing wrong with profits. I mean, we’re in a capitalistic society, we all need to make money, but it’s pure greed.

“There’s profit and then there’s just plain old greed and that’s what’s come up in the corporations now that own the hospitals.”

The health care provider, which owns 184 hospitals nationwide reported $16.2 billion in revenues during the third quarter in October. Also this year, state officials and politicians have inquired about unsafe practices at HCA hospitals in Florida and North Carolina.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services opened an investigation earlier this month into the operations of the emergency department at Mission Hospital in Asheville, which is an HCA hospital. One of the nurses who works there, Hannah Drummond, attended Thursday’s rally in Tampa.

“The minute all these folks entered town all of a sudden, magically, staff got much, much better,” Drummond said in an interview with the Phoenix. She has worked at the hospital in Asheville for more than four years.

An HCA spokesperson dismissed the union’s claims in an email to the Phoenix.

“Today’s small protest by NNU (National Nurses United) is no different than their protests against countless health systems across the country. We expect that NNU will continue protesting and making unfounded claims about our hospitals and the quality care that we are proud to provide, especially as we enter negotiations for a new contract, as we will with this labor union next year,” said Debra McKell, director of media relations for HCA Healthcare’s West Florida Division. “We are proud of the excellent care we provide to our patients, which includes earning 338 quality achievements for best in specialty for 2024 from Healthgrades, placing our facilities among the top of all short-term acute care hospitals evaluated.”

No breaks

McKell sent a similar statement to the Phoenix in May when a union of hospital staff also denounced understaffing before they ratified a new contract in July, as the Phoenix’s Mitch Perry previously reported.

Both Drummond and Preuss said lack of staff working at hospitals prevents nurses from taking proper breaks during their long shifts.

“Most of the nurses I work with in the ICU don’t leave their patients. They’ll go clock out and eat their food right next to their patients,” Preuss said. “On the floors, some of those nurses are getting seven or eight patients, so if you do go on a break, they will be watching 16 patients while they’re partners on a break.”

Nurses working at HCA hospitals in Kissimmee and Port Charlotte in Florida and the state of Nevada also shared similar experiences caring for several patients at once.

“There’s not really a staffing shortage, there’s a shortage of nurses who are willing to work under the conditions the way that they are in hospitals today,” said Lisa Cornelius, a registered nurse at MountainView Hospital in Las Vegas who was at the Tampa rally on Thursday. “Conditions are that they are not staffing enough employees. The nurses are being torn and can’t give the care that really want to be able to give to the patients.”

The COVID-19 pandemic made the problem worse, Pruess said: “We started getting crazy staffing shortage and then after COVID they kind of used that as an excuse to stay where we’re at.”

Florida Phoenix reporter Mitch Perry contributed to this report.