Lawmakers act behind scenes to bring BMC, union together
PITTSFIELD — The city's representatives on Beacon Hill are working to resolve differences between Berkshire Medical Center and its registered nurses.
As a one-day strike Tuesday pushed the parties further apart, lawmakers are using their influence to heal divisions.
Both state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, expressed concern that questions about staffing and care be settled.
"This has been our priority to focus on that," Hinds said. "We've all been concerned with the direction the talks have been going in and keeping a close eye on the quality of care that the community receives."
Both lawmakers are remaining neutral on the dispute, hoping to use that independence as a tool to keep channels of communication open.
"I am staying strictly neutral in this matter because I believe that's the best way I can be helpful in bringing the sides together," Farley-Bouvier said in an interview from the Statehouse.
She said she is "heartbroken" that despite a year of contract talks, the hospital and Massachusetts Nurses Association are unable to agree to new contract terms.
Rather than propose solutions to sticking points in negotiations, which have centered on staffing, Hinds and Farley-Bouvier say they are asking the sides to sit and work through their disagreements.
Hinds declined to say what he might propose as a remedy to disagreement over one particular union proposal — that charge nurses be freed up from set patient assignments so they can back up colleagues.
"I'll leave those to the negotiating table," he said. "We're clear what the remaining issues are. Any option is worth considering to bridge that gap."
Similarly, Farley-Bouvier said she's tried to listen to both sides and ask pointed questions. The Western Massachusetts delegation was recently briefed on issues in the talks by the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
"I'm just hoping I can be a person both sides trust to get through what's now become an emotional issue," she said.
Tuesday's strike is the third time this year unionized RNs have walked off the job in Massachusetts. The hospital's nearly 800 registered nurses will remain out of work until Sunday, when replacement nurses will complete a five-day assignment in Pittsfield.
Farley-Bouvier said the impact of the strike will be different in Pittsfield than in Boston, where nurses struck against Tufts Medical Center in July.
"In the Berkshires, your nurse is your neighbor, a fellow soccer mom and in the pew in front of you in church," she said.
The lawmaker said she plans to renew efforts to influence the talks next week, after out-of-town nurses depart. She said she hopes any additional divisions as a result of this week's conflict can be overcome.
Both elected officials note that disagreement over what constitutes high-quality care needs to be addressed. But that too is a balancing act.
"We want nurses to feel that they are working in a safe environment," Farley-Bouvier said. At the same time, she acknowledged the hospital and union define that differently. Nurses claim their units need help to avoid delays and gaps in patient care. The hospital says it follows national staffing standards and makes sound personnel choices based on real-time information.
"It's really important to me that there is safe staffing at Berkshire Medical Center, " Farley-Bouvier said. "And what does this look like at Berkshire Medical Center?"
Answering that, she said, will take continued efforts to bring the sides together.
"Right now, emotions are so high," she said.
Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.
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