HAZARD, Ky. (AP) - Religious leaders from nine states are asking officials at Appalachian Regional Healthcare and striking nurses at the system's nine hospitals to resolve their contract dispute for the sake of their patients.
"The saddest outcome of this prolonged dispute is that our communities in Appalachia and the quality of our health care will suffer the greatest if this dispute is not settled soon," said the Rev. John Rausch, director of the Catholic Committee on Appalachia.
Rausch and more than 75 other leaders submitted a letter on Wednesday to ARH President and CEO Jerry Haynes and members of the Kentucky and West Virginia nurses association. The letter supports
continuous bargaining, but scolds ARH for permanently replacing about 150 of the nurses on strike.
"From a moral and ethical perspective, the permanent replacement of striking nurses at Appalachian Regional Healthcare must stop; and permanently replaced workers should be reinstated," the letter says.
The statement represents views of religious leaders from several groups, including the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Roman Catholic Church, the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church.
About 650 nurses walked off the job Oct. 1. Last week, the remaining 500 rejected a contract offer in a 455-5 vote.
ARH spokeswoman Candace Elkins said company officials were going to meet with Rausch later in the day. "We look forward to the opportunity to talk with Father Rausch about the labor dispute," she said, without elaboration.
Rausch met with 15 nurses on strike from the ARH hospital in Hazard before speaking to reporters. A similar gathering was held in Charleston, W.Va., where the Rev. Dennis Sparks called on the ARH board of trustees to get involved with negotiations.
"Reaching a fair settlement quickly is not only important to the nurses, it is critical to ARH's financial viability, and the future of heath care in Appalachian communities," he said in a statement.
Rausch said members of Judeo-Christian faiths were concerned because they felt the lives of patients were at stake.
"Health care is a human right. It's not a commodity," Rausch said. "In the New Testament, there's healing, there's healing on practically every page. ... Strikes are a horrible breakdown in human cooperation."
He said that while ARH can legally replace the nurses on strike, it's morally wrong.
The nurses have been criticized for leaving their patients behind while they walk the picket line. About 150 have crossed the picket line, many of whom say they feel obligated to take care of their patients.
But those on the picket line say their main purpose for striking is the well-being of their patients. They say that staffing levels are spread too thin and mandatory overtime has become the norm.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Haynes denied the claims, saying federal and state regulators have never found that ARH's staffing levels adversely affect patient outcomes. Payroll documents offered by ARH show that nurses on average worked 2.5 hours overtime a week.
Still, several nurses complained that even if their patients' medical needs were met, their emotional needs were neglected. Sometimes, they said, the patients simply need to talk - and nurses were too busy to stop and lend an ear.
"The patients deserve so much better than what they were given," said Sherry Eversole, a recent nursing graduate who was hired by ARH in July. "I didn't have time to do for those people what they deserve."
Tammy Clemons, a 14-year nursing veteran, had similar motives for striking.
"I want to treat my patients as if they were my family. When I go home, I want to feel good about what I've done," she said.
We hope to have more on another meeting between union and ARH negotiators in Lexington Wednesday coming up tonight on Night Watch.