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No Pain Medication on Hospital Hill


Published June 19, 1996 at 4:00 a.m.

Staff morale up on the hill is in negative numbers these days as Vermont's largest medical shopping mall, Fletcher Allen Health Care, struggles to keep its act together in this bold new age of health care.

FAHC spokesman, Mike Noble, understates the crisis when he says, "There are a lot of dynamics in the world of health care these days. The environment is changing where for years it had been pretty stable." Amen. In Vermont the express train has arrived, and health care is changing week by week. The worry factor is rising. In less than a generation we've gone from family doctor to an 800 number, leaving folks more than a little worried.

Our sources say more layoffs are coming up on the hill as the Mary Fanny massages its bottom line into recovery. RNs will be hit the hardest. You see, the problem with RNs is, they cost too much and can easily be replaced with much cheaper LPNs and nurse aides: C'mon, you don't need a college degree to stick a plastic doohickey in someone's ear to take their temperature, do you?

The hospital's underground newsletter that's anything but underground informed staff last week that, starting this fall, they'll have to pay for the "privilege" of parking (while Mayor Peter Clavelle plans to take the UHC parking lot off the tax rolls — good boy!). The "Setting Sun," as workers call it, in contrast to the in-house "Fletcher Allen Sun," predicts come October, staff will be losing out on their discounts on the chow line on the first floor.

"That cost-cutting measure is not approved yet," says Noble. "It's merely one of the suggestions that have come through. There's no implementation date." Eat up while it's cheap, gang.

Same with free parking for workers, warns the "Setting Sun." Officials confirm that free parking is on the controversial suggestion list for cost savings. Can you say "car pool?"

One cost-cutting measure that's beyond the proposal stage and already enacted has Mary Fanny's nurses growling. As of this month, nurses can be sent home without pay "during periods of low census or low activity" for up to 16 hours during a two-week pay period. "What about mortgage payments and retirement benefits?" asks one nurse who was told recently to go home. According to Phillips Kerr, vice president for human resources, retirement benefits will be affected because they're based on actual earnings.

Also, on-call staff will likely see a change. Currently an OR nurse on call gets two bucks an hour and, if called in, is guaranteed four hours at time-and-a-half. Kerr says a reduction to two guaranteed hours is "under consideration."

Meanwhile, as more layoffs loom and work hours are reduced, guess what the powers that be have under major renovation?

No, nor the operating rooms, the emergency room or the maternity unit. Give up?

The lobby. We're told it's the biggest joke on Hospital Hill. Noble defends the renovation by calling it "customer-driven in terms of congestion." Between the waiting room, the main entrance and the cafeteria, there's a very bad jam down there during the day, he notes.

On the bright side, Kerr reports that the hospital's use of expensive temporary nurses hired from national agencies will be down to zero by the end of the week. One year ago, 30 temps were on duty.

Bottom line: The times, they are a-changin' in health care land. "It's a real tightening down," says Kerr. "This is scary."

Passing ThroughShawn Ellis is from Detroit. Until a year ago he drove a delivery truck for the Gannett-owned Detroit News. Then Gannett and Scripps-Howard, owners of the Detroit Free Press, decided to play hardball with the workers. (They already have a joint operating agreement that saves millions.) "They canceled contracts and imposed conditions in July 1995," says Ellis. It's put 2500 newspaper people out of work. Between them, Gannett and Scripps-Howard own 130 newspapers.

"They shape the way Americans think about labor," Shawn adds. He was in the Green Mountains to thank those Vermonters who sent a truckload of foodstuffs out to the strikers a couple months back, and to ask the locals to call the local Gannett outpost, a.k.a the Burlington Free Press, and render their two-cents worth. "I'd like people to dial their 800 number and use Gannett's dime, 1-800-427-3124, and let them know you're disturbed with the fact they're trying to bust unions in Detroit." Let's see now. Jim Carey, the president and publisher and a very charming gentleman, would probably be the best guy to ask for.

Can't Have It Both Ways — Politics sure is entertaining. Take Bernie Sanders, for example. On the one hand, he's painting his Republican challenger, Susan Sweetser, as a clone of Newt Gingrich, a.k.a. Evil Incarnate. But on the other hand, he's snuggling up to the ultraconservative Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee to successfully save the Northeast Dairy Compact from the knives of the Democrats.

"In the Congress," says Ol' Bernardo, "that's what you do. You work with people who have common interests." Chairman Robert Livingston (R-LA), notes Bernie, wanted to keep his bill whole, and within his bill was the Northeast Dairy Compact, which I wanted." The rest is history.

Media Notes — Good news from the Big Apple. That's where former WPTZ cameraman Ethan Nelson (beloved offspring of UVM's political guru Garrison Nelson), went to seek fame and fortune a few months ago. Well, bingo! First he landed a job as a CBS page working "The David Letterman Show." Then, just last week he was plucked from the aisles to be an assistant to one of the network's big cheeses — Leslie Stahl of "60 Minutes" fame. Bravo!

Believe it or not, the longtime also-ran in the local TV news race is beefing up its staff. WVNY recently added a fourth full-time reporter. Danielle Pelletier is a Lyndon State grad. Starting in July, Ch. 22 will be adding local news breaks with Danielle on the anchor desk during "Good Morning America."

Wing Nuts, Untie! — Oops, I mean Unite! Often political discourse gets pretty serious and very stuffy. That's why it's crucial to have the contributions of the Wing Nuts. Take Tom Morse, for example. Mr. Property Rights earned at least two things in his 1994 gubernatorial bid: 15,000 votes (7 percent), and an arrest record for breaching the Ch. 3 parking lot when he was shut out of a debate slot. Howard Dean was on local talk radio Monday proposing taking away the cars of drunk drivers when Tom-Tom called, all in a dither. What about property rights? asked Underhill's Mr. Foam Products. Sure enough, cars are property. Mr. Foam also took exception to having a six-month license suspension for refusing a breath test. Violates the Fifth Amendment, he said. Of course, Tom-Tom didn't realize that one's already the law of the land. Cmon, Mr. Foam, please run for governor.

Speaking of Congressman, Bernie Sanders