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Rice nurses make plea to 'do the right thing' with joint venture

WILLMAR -- A delegation of nurses appeared Wednesday before the Rice Memorial Hospital Board, urging board members to keep patient care foremost as negotiations progress on a new joint venture among Rice, Affiliated Community Medical Centers and ...

Briana Sanchez / TribunePeople walk into Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar in this August 2, 2016, file photo. The hospital board Wednesday approved a letter of intent to enter into an affiliation with Centracare Health of St. CLoud. Affiliated Community Medical Clinics also announced they plan to partner with CentraCare.
Briana Sanchez / TribunePeople walk in and out of Rice Memorial Hospital August 2, 2016.

WILLMAR - A delegation of nurses appeared Wednesday before the Rice Memorial Hospital Board, urging board members to keep patient care foremost as negotiations progress on a new joint venture among Rice, Affiliated Community Medical Centers and CentraCare.

They also issued a plea for the nursing staff to be included at the table during the discussion.

"We urge you to do the right thing - respect our contract and our profession," said Michele McCleary, a registered nurse in the hospital's dialysis unit.

"Please include nurses in all future decisions so we can provide valuable input and keep Rice Hospital the outstanding hospital that it is now," she said.

The city-owned hospital and ACMC voted last month to enter into negotiations with CentraCare Health of St. Cloud to develop a formal partnership. Officials at Rice and ACMC see the move as a way to strengthen the fabric of local health care and remain viable in the face of increasing pressure on reimbursement.

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Details will be worked out and agreed upon over the next six months or so. The timetable calls for approving a final agreement by the end of the year and launching the new entity Jan. 1.

In presentations earlier this month to hospital employees, administrators sought to reassure the staff that existing labor contracts will be honored.

There are still many unanswered questions about what the new affiliation will look like, however, and the half-dozen nurses who appeared before the hospital board Wednesday said they would like to see more assurances.

McCleary, the spokesman for the group, said nurses have many concerns.

"Will the hospital be privatized? If so, what does this mean to our (Public Employees Retirement Association) benefits?" she asked, noting that many nurses have more than 20 years vested in working at Rice.

Nurses are wondering what will happen to their contracts and their health insurance, she said.

In a statement she read to the board, McCleary called on hospital leaders to keep their expressed commitment to recognizing the existing collective bargaining agreement with the Minnesota Nurses Association, which represents the registered nurses at Rice.

Nurses also want assurance that they will have the resources, the support and the staffing levels to provide good patient care, she said.

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"We appreciate you coming here tonight," Doug Allen, chairman of the hospital board, told the nurses.

"We recognize that all our employees are the crucial key to delivering high-quality care," he said.

Members of the delegation said after the meeting that they plan to remain visible as talks continue on the joint venture with CentraCare.

Uncertainty is high among hospital employees, said Johanna Reller, an emergency room nurse. "We're just making sure we have our voices heard," she said. "We're not just here for nurses. We're here for the community. We want to make sure they keep getting the care they're used to."

Rice employs about 900 overall. About 200 are registered nurses.

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