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Mercy Health Muskegon officials, union respond to long ER wait times

Posted at 9:55 PM, Oct 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-20 23:01:17-04

MUSKEGON, Mich. — The wait times at the emergency room in Muskegon Mercy Health can sometimes be longer than expected, said hospital group President Gary Allore.

He and other hospital officials hosted a virtual press conference Wednesday morning to talk about the issue and give the community an update.

“I would say the most significant factor that we’re seeing at this point is the strain on the hospital due to the length of the stay of our patients in the hospital,” Allore said during the press conference. “When you look at the length of our average patients, for a period of about eight years straight, our average stay was about 3.8 days on the average. And, you can see that the last year [or] year and a half, we’ve been running about 4.5 days.”

Allore said that’s the equivalent of about 35 beds a day.

He added that patients are sicker than they were prior to the pandemic and others have put off preventative care and are entering the ER with "very high acuity levels." So, patients are staying longer.

“If you look at that chart, it also shows that our overall volume, our in-patient volume, is actually down. We used to see a little over 19,000 discharges a year. And, over the last year that number is actually just a little over 18,000 on average,” Allore said. “So, it’s really not [about] volume. It’s more of length of the stay of patients in the organization.“

The longer patients are in the hospital, the more staffing and resources are utilized, Allore said. It impacts the staff already there and can increase their exposure to the virus, which can lead to an even shorter number of staff on hand to help.

Additionally, some nurses are leaving the hospital, Allore said, to become traveling nurses, which further impacts staffing levels. He believes that's also led to longer wait times.

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“There’s a lot of nurses making the decision — either it’s nurses younger in age or potentially don’t need benefits or others — to do traveling nursing outside of their community, and there is a higher rate of pay for that,” Allore said. “So, what’s happened in the industry is there’s more travel nursing going on. So, hospitals in essence ended up requiring to use traveling nurses because we’re losing some nurses to travel agencies.”

Respiratory therapist Cyndi Zeanwick agreed.

She said some nurses are becoming traveling nurses. However, overall, many frontline workers are leaving the industry.

“I know a lot of people are leaving healthcare just because they’re burned out. They’re tired. They just can’t do it anymore,” Zeanwick said during a Zoom interview after the press conference. “At Mercy in Muskegon, there’s really no incentive to stay. The SEIU, my union, has been advocating for retention, hazard-crisis pay, whatever you want to call it,  for the last 18 months. We received something today, 18 months into this. So, there’s no incentive for us to stay.”

Zeanwick said frontline workers oftentimes work double shifts. In her department alone, there’s people who work 50, 60 and sometimes 70 hours a week. She said it’s taken a toll emotionally, especially during the pandemic.

“You know as a respiratory therapist, this is a respiratory pandemic. We’re right in the middle of it. Every day, you know, it’s just every day. When we walk in the employee door and there’s a refrigerator truck out there for bodies, it’s—” Zeanwick paused with tears in her eyes. “The death and the suffering for the last 18 months has really taken a toll, not just our department, just everybody.”

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During the press conference, Allore said that retention is something they’re working on. So, hospital officials tend to focus on enriching the work culture at the hospital instead of compensation.

SEIU President Andrea Acevedo said she believes it should be the other way around.

“They’re workers who have worked this frontline pandemic, and the way that we need to honor them is to also create an atmosphere of where they are compensated appropriately,” Acevedo said. “The important part of their job is serving the community. The residents and the patients of this community is what’s ultimately most important.”

Zeanwick agreed. She said a patient’s well-being is their top priority but all frontline workers will need some sort of incentive to stay.

“That’s our No. 1 priority is good patient care,” Zeanwick said. “But, the way things are running right now, that’s not happening.”

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