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Nurses Fight For Patients 

Inside Track

It's been almost two years since Big Bad Bill Boettcher, the discredited former CEO of Fletcher Allen Health Care, was put on paid leave by the board of trustees. It occurred after serious allegations surfaced that Boss Bill had deliberately pulled the wool over the eyes of state regulators in order to win approval of the Mary Fanny's gazillion-dollar Renaissance Project.

Of course, Boettcher had to first pull the wool over the eyes of his distinguished board of useless trustees, led by Chairman Philip Drumheller. On September 16, 2002, Boettcher officially resigned and took a nice little $750,000 golden parachute with him to soften his fall from grace.

Almost two years later, life goes on at Vermont's largest hospital. Babies are born, broken bones repaired, bodies sent to the morgue. And the Renaissance construction continues.

Also, federal and state criminal investigators continue to investigate, though the longer it takes, say some legal observers, the less likely the gendarmes will have a case against Big Bad Bill and his good ol' boys.

We shall see.

Today the hospital on the hill has a new management team led by Dr. Melinda Estes. And the Mary Fanny has a new board of trustees led by Bill Schubart.

The nurses are different, too. A month after Big Bad Bill's departure, they voted 2-1 to form a union.

In a statement released Friday, the

nurses' union made a rather disconcerting charge. The union claimed patients' lives are at risk because there simply aren't enough nurses on duty to take care of them!

The nurses said the hospital had rejected staffing ratios "developed collaboratively by the Staffing Committee." Instead, the Estes administration "has chosen to implement different staffing ratios that are unacceptable to nurses."

As yours truly knows only too well, a walking, talking, easily reachable registered nurse can be the most important person on Earth to a hospital patient.

"By implementing these staffing ratios," the union claimed, "the hospital is intentionally understaffing units, putting patient lives at risk."

Pretty serious stuff, eh?

According to the union, 60 nurses attended last week's trustee pow-wow.

"Unfortunately," read the release, "we were not allowed more than 30 minutes to talk about this very important issue. The Board would not commit to a timeline to implement a plan that would ensure safe patient care."

Not so, says Mary Fanny spokeswoman Maria McClellan.

"Fletcher Allen did not ask the nurses to leave the board meeting," said McClellan. There was a scheduled 30-minute period for public comment, and the nurses, said Maria, made full use of it and then some.

According to McClellan, the nurses asked the trustees to come up with a plan "by the end of the day" to address their concerns about staffing.

The trustees may not have responded, but CEO Melinda Estes did.

In an email to hospital employees last Thurday, Boss Melinda took the bull by the horns, as they say.

She informed everyone that the nurses had raised concerns about staffing at the trustee meeting.

"There are staffing issues at this organization that we need to address," wrote Boss Boettcher's replacement, "and I appreciated the passion with which they delivered their comments about this issue."

Nice to have one's passion appreciated, but, in the nurses' opinion, the rhetoric in Boss Melinda's email does not match her actions.

According to Jen Henry, R.N., president of the union, the lack of adequate staffing is no joke. Two weekends ago, she said, McClure 6 had just three nurses on duty during the night shift. The patient-to-nurse ratio was 10-1, instead of the recommended 4-1.

Nurse Jen told Seven Days she immediately tried to set up a meeting with Boss Melinda. Instead, she said, she was told to bring her concerns to the trustees.

"Why is she telling us to bring it to the board," asked Nurse Jen, "if the board won't do anything?"

Since the Renaissance Scandal erupted there's been a house-cleaning of management and trustees, but the union's head nurse wonders if much has really changed. In the bad old days, management had no time for the nurses.

Two months ago, recalled the union president, Trustee Chairman Bill Schubart "gave me his card and said, 'Call me anytime. Let's get together.'"

Unfortunately, said Henry, Schubart has since failed to follow through with his friendly invitation.

"They're treating us like small children," said Nurse Jen.

Chairman Schubart was out of town Tuesday and unavailable for comment.

Interesting to note: The local press was not notified in advance that the nurses' union planned to raise the staffing issue at last week's trustee meeting. In fact, the first we learned of the problem was Boss Melinda's email.

It looks like the nurses went out of their way to deal directly with the Mary Fanny higher-ups, rather than use the press to whip up public concern.

"I don't want to solve this in the public arena unless we have to," Nurse Jen told Seven Days. "We don't want to air our dirty laundry in public unless we need the public's help."

Sounds like the time has arrived. After all, shouldn't the public know if the registered nurse caring for a loved one is simultaneously caring for nine other patients?

One professional serving 10 clients just doesn't sound right. After all, it's a hospital, not a house of prostitution.

Nurse Jen also disputes Ms. McClellan's assertion that the nurses at the meeting demanded the trustees come up with a staffing policy by day's end.

All they requested, said Henry, was for the trustees to direct Boss Melinda's administration to meet with them face-to-face to address the current staffing crisis.

"All I asked," said Nurse Jen, "was for them to set a date."

One week has passed.

No date has been set.


P.S. A couple weeks back, we wrote about the Mary Fanny's new million-dollar media campaign designed to encourage New Yorkers to get their hearts repaired in Burlington. The hospital in Plattsburgh, you see, is starting to offer top-of-the-line heart care this summer.

The $1 million is helping fund a local TV and radio advertising campaign. However, a few local commercial radio stations were miffed that all the radio ad money was going to Vermont Public Radio and a public-radio station across the lake.


Especially since everybody knows that folks who listen to country music, for example, eat a lot of fatty foods and don't exercise properly. Plus there's the coronary stress related to broken marriages and repossessed trucks.

Maybe Mary Fanny wanted to target the hearts of overeducated thinkers whose coronary stress isn't as easily observed?

Surely, all things considered, it was a tactical decision by the Estes administration. A decision designed to reach the broadest possible listening audience.

Surely the fact that Mary Fanny Board Chairman Bill Schubart is also the chairman of the board at Vermont Public Radio was not in any way, shape or form a factor in the decision?

Just to be sure that everything's kosher, Seven Days has learned, the Mary Fanny recently revised its radio advertising plan.

Hospital spokesman Mike Noble told Seven Days there was "a changing of the mind" on Hospital Hill just last week.

"We didn't want there to be any misperceptions," said Noble, "since Bill [Schubart] chairs both boards."

The powers that be apparently realized "some people might have concerns," as Noble Mike put it. Conflict-of-interest stuff, you know, like Vice President Dick Cheney and Haliburton.

"We wanted to eliminate those concerns," said Noble. Thus, the Mary Fanny has decided that, all things considered, it will not be using Mr. Schubart's VPR airwaves to advertise its heart-related surgical services.

Coronary bypass, eh?

What Health Plan? --

An unusual sighting on the Ch. 3 airwaves Sunday morning -- a Democrat was the guest on WGOP, sorry, WCAX-TV's sterling public-affairs program, "You Can Quote Me."

The appearance of Democratic Party Chairman Scudder Parker of Montpelier slightly improved the percentage of Democrat faces who've made the program of late. Sunday's was the fourth show since last September that featured a Dem in the guest chair.

Meanwhile, 19 "Quote Me" programs since last fall have quoted Republicans.

You do the math.

Chairman Parker appeared one week after Republican State Chairman Jim Barnett was on. As expected, Scudder countered Mad Dog's trademark attack rhetoric with a thoughtful analysis of the problems facing the state -- soaring health-care costs being numero uno.

But, in what has to be a "You Can Quote Me" all-time first, the news made on Sunday's program was not made by the guest. It was made by the host, WCAX News Director Marselis Parsons.

Mr. Parker articulated the urgent need for Vermont to make a unified, concerted effort to get a grip on the Health Care Monster. And he explained in some depth the reasons why Peter Clavelle is the man to lead the charge.

Mr. Parsons shot back with his trademark WGOP skepticism of all things Democratic. Marsillyiss told the Scudmeister he didn't recall the Democrats under the golden ever proposing anything to deal with the health-care crisis.

"The Democrats are the party of the oppressed," said Mr. Parsons sarcastically, "the party, you know, that likes to help the poor and those who are disadvantaged. And I don't remember a Democratic bill that was going to solve the health-care crisis."

The sad part is, Parsons was telling the truth.

Parker look positively dumbfounded. He assumed the news director of Vermont's largest TV station followed the legislature.

After all, the minority House Democrats, led by Rep. Gaye Symington, introduced several health-care proposals. Democratic legislators, in fact, met on their own time through last summer and fall working on health-care solutions, Parker pointed out to Parsons.

"I was startled," said Parker later, "that [Parsons] didn't know what the House had done." He reminded the news director that the House Democrats even had a Statehouse press conference to let the media know about their proposal.

Among others initiatives, the Democrats last session proposed legislation to buy prescription drugs in Canada, coverage for home health-care workers and a health insurance plan for small businesses that would have extended coverage to almost 10,000 uncovered Vermont workers. Their proposals on health care all went nowhere, because Gov. Jim Douglas and House Speaker Walter Freed were calling all the shots.

Perhaps it's a case of the news anchor only knowing what he's read or watched on his own station?

Indeed, a check of the online Ch. 3 news archive shows little mention of the House Democrat leader on the WCAX news. We found Symington's name in only six news stories since January. Mostly she was called on to comment on a gubernatorial speech or proposal. But on April 14, WCAX briefly mentioned the Democrats' Small Business Health Plan.

Of course, Ch. 3 also reported that Gov. Douglas did not consider the Democrat plan "a serious health-care proposal."

End of story.

Which leads to questions that were bouncing around the building last winter about WCAX's current Statehouse coverage. Anyone who watches Gov. Douglas' weekly press conferences on VPT or Ch. 17 knows that Ch. 3's veteran Grand Inquisitor Tim Lewis isn't around much anymore. Lewis' main gig is teaching his craft to the TV news stars of tomorrow at Lyndon State College.

Mr. Lewis used to ask so many questions he'd often drive the governor and other reporters nuts. Ol' Tim used to treat governors as guilty until proven innocent. For Lewis, the press existed to play the role of adversary to power.

I never thought I'd say this, but I miss Tim Lewis.

Ch. 3's current Statehouse crew, Anson Tebbetts and Kristin Carlson, are fine, lovely, intelligent, attractive and talented people, but yours truly can't recall either one ever posing an adversarial, probing question at a Douglas press conference. That's assuming, of course, they even ask a question.

Ch. 3's Statehouse coverage, we'd argue, reflects it. Everything Gov. Scissorhands says is taken as gospel. He can do no wrong. No campaign public relations firm on Earth could do a better job covering his reign.

One lucky dude, eh?

Freeps Confession --

Wonders never cease. The Burlington Free Press admitted in print that it was wrong!

As you know, the day after last week's "Vermont's Journalism Joke" column hit the street, the Freeps ran a historic "CORRECTION AND CLARIFICATION" on the top of its editorial page. Executive Editor Mike Townsend (who still hasn't returned our calls), admitted the paper's ridiculous editorial slamming Rep. Bernie Sanders for supporting Wal-Mart's move into St. Albans was based on fiction.

"We apologize for the factual errors regarding Congressman Sanders," wrote Editor Townsend.

Of course, the Gannett chain's local news boss had to slip in a silly, defensive paragraph saying "some local government planners" (whom he chose not to identify) think the improvements Bernie's seeking around Exit 19 may one day in the far-distant future somehow, some way, improve customer access to the proposed Wal-Mart five miles up the road at Exit 20.

Townsend's lily-livered claim is apparently based on the "All Roads Lead to Rome" theory of highway construction.

Nice try, Mike.

The correction was a first step to recover the newspaper's lost credibility. It's one thing when some readers take exception to an editorial position. It's quite another when all readers from across the political spectrum break out in laughter.

The real question is whether the Gannett-chain paper's editorial page can regain any credibility whatsoever with Editorial Page Editor David Awbrey still calling the shots.

Got something to say? Send a letter to the editor and we'll publish your feedback in print!

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About The Author

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne, 1949-2009, wrote the weekly political column "Inside Track," which originated in the Vanguard Press in the mid 1980s; he brought it to Seven Days in 1995. He retired it shortly before his death in January, 2009. We all miss him.


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