By RICARDO WELLS
Tribune Staff Reporter
HEALTH Minister Dr Duane Sands said officials expect healthcare services to be negatively impacted this week if the Bahamas Nurses Union continues to protest, adding some elective procedures could be postponed or cancelled.
Calling the situation "unfortunate," the Elizabeth MP said the Public Hospitals Authority's recent offers to the disgruntled BNU reflect the best the nation could offer, arguing the public purse is in no position to bear any additional compensation.
Dr Sands said while a resolution could be possible if both sides remained open to communicating, he is preparing for an extended crisis - terming it the worst possible outcome.
He said officials with the PHA and the Ministry of Health have received reliable information that BNU intends to push its demonstration late into the week, and as a result, public health services will be affected across the country.
However, Dr Sands said plans are in place to best avoid any drawbacks that could arise as the action progresses in the coming days.
He added that while he supports the right for the union to agitate for workers' rights and wages, he takes issue with any action that could adversely affect Bahamians seeking medical attention.
"We believe that this is likely to significantly interfere with the delivery of healthcare services," Dr Sands said at a press conference at Ministry of Health. "We find it to be unfortunate. We have encouraged dialogue. We are open for dialogue. And in the event of an impasse, we are certainly open to proceeding to arbitration."
Yesterday morning, nurses demonstrated outside Princess Margaret Hospital's Critical Care Block in anger over PHA's move to implement a new shift system. The union said nurses will take their one-hour lunch break at staggered times - they normally only take a 15-minute break - until their concerns are favourably addressed.
Dr Sands said he was of the view that BNU moved too hastily in its decision to hold a demonstration yesterday.
"There is clearly an issue of interpretation of certain agreements that have been signed, in particular the agreement signed by the then union president (Jannah) Khalfani in 2014 and clearly, you put a set of facts in front of two lawyers you could potentially get two different ideas about what it means," he said. "If we have reached a point where there is an impasse, then an effort to achieve compromise and consensus through sitting down and negotiating, I believe, is the right way to proceed," he added.
"….Certainly, when you look at the impact of nurses withdrawing their care from patients in need, this is very unfortunate."
When asked about contingency plans being explored by his office and officials at the PHA, Dr Sands said additional staff would have to "step up as best as possible," adding that some, if not all, elective surgical procedures could be delayed or canceled.
"Unfortunately, the public suffers in this instance," Dr Sands noted. "I have spoken with (BNU President Amancha Williams yesterday). I have made it very clear that my ministry is open to ongoing negotiation to settle this matter and that I think that we should seek a negotiated compromise. That is the position of the Ministry of Health and I believe that is probably going to be supported by the Cabinet and the prime minister."
When asked of Ms Williams' response to the offer to negotiate, Dr Sands added: "She said that she would get back to me."
BNU's demonstration comes in the wake of PHA's announcement last week that the four days on/four days off shift will change to a five days on/ five days off shift in December.
The two sides dispute what affect the change will have on the well-being of nurses. BNU insists it will leave them overworked but the PHA says it will reduce chances for accidents and errors. Nurses should be less overworked since more of them will be on duty during a single shift, the PHA said.
Reflecting on the move yesterday, Dr Sands insisted the shift system the nurses are advocating for creates an artificial shortage that reflects a 30 percent drop-off in healthcare capabilities across the country.
According to Dr Sands, the practice often results in patients being turned away with the indication that there are no physical beds for patient care.
He explained: "When we speak about bed availability, it is not just the physical bed, it is a nurse able to care for a patient. So, historically in a bid to make the night shift more attractive, the four on, four off rostering system was created."
He added: "We believe now, particularly given the challenge of bed shortages, that the country can ill-afford to continue with that, and PHA has put forward a proposal with the concurrence of the then Bahamas Nurses Union to provide a premium for nurses that work the night shift."
Dr Sands said officials have proposed a $1.75 per hour on top of the base salary for nurses working the overnight shift, which adds about $4,000 per year to the salaries of some nurses.
Dr Sands added: "And the night shift is the shift that is least labour intensive. There are no operations performed other than emergencies. There are no procedures being performed either than emergencies. And without diminishing the significance of the night shift, for the most part, the activity that takes place on the wards during that time period is less than takes place during the day and the afternoon."
Dr Sands also said he wishes the government could compensate nurses more, but his ministry is stifled by budgetary constraints.