SPRING HILL — Three months ago, Oak Hill Hospital nurses marched in a circle along the shoulder of State Road 50, shouting their demands for reinforcements.
On Wednesday, some of those nurses were back, this time with fellow union members from Community Hospital in New Port Richey, to renew their call for hospital administrators to hire more nurses and increase wages.
"We continue to struggle to be heard by the company, and we are struggling for a fair contract," said Barbara Hart, a registered nurse at Oak Hill and a member of National Nurses Organizing Committee-Florida, during a midday news conference.
Both hospitals are owned by Tennessee-based Hospital Corporation of America, or HCA. Union officials have been in negotiations with company representatives since March, and nurses at 13 other HCA hospitals in Florida and Texas held press conferences at the same time Wednesday.
The union wants HCA to hire more nurses to address what members say are often unsafe nurse-patient ratios.
In the last 12 months, according to union officials, nurses at Oak Hill and Community have filed roughly 450 objection forms with hospital management before working their shift assignments. Nurses cannot refuse an assignment, but can document their concerns. The union keeps copies of the objection forms as potential evidence that could help protect members in the event of a liability issue that might arise.
In most cases, nurses who filled out the forms feared that a high patient load would compromise their ability to give proper care.
The union wants to form a task force of nurses and hospital managers at both Oak Hill and Community to address the causes of the assignment objections, especially the staffing levels. Officials at both hospitals have rejected the task force idea, union members said.
"If we attain our staffing proposal, we will be able to provide the care our patients deserve," said Louise Eastty, a registered nurse at Community Hospital.
The union also seeks to bring the hourly wage at both hospitals closer to the national average of $32.56 and has proposed a salary structure for both hospitals.
At Oak Hill, the average hourly wage is $29.06, according to union figures. At Community, the amount is 4 cents lower. Both are below the state average of $30.29, according to 2010 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"The company already makes profits," Hart said. "We want to see that reinvested into patients and the community."
HCA provided a prepared statement in response to queries from the Times.
"The union has made a number of derogatory, unfounded comments about the hospitals, rather than offering positive, constructive comments that are focused on reaching an agreement," the statement said. "We have been bargaining in good faith and will continue to do so. We will continue to discuss the current topics at the bargaining table rather than negotiate through the media.
"Regardless of the union's tactics, patient care is the first and absolute priority every day for everyone working at Oak Hill and Community Hospitals. We have, and we will continue to provide uninterrupted, high-quality health care, with the same compassion and dedication that our patients and communities have come to expect."
The two sides will be back at the bargaining table next month.
The September picket at Oak Hill was the first organized demonstration there since the nurses voted last December to join the state affiliate of National Nurses United. With some 170,000 members, NNU is the country's largest union and professional association of registered nurses. The Florida affiliate represents about 240 Oak Hill nurses and 325 Community nurses.
Registered nurses at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point, the other HCA hospital in Pasco County, are represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 79.
Early next year, HCA will close Community, with the exception of the behavioral health unit, and open the new Medical Center of Trinity on State Road 54. Community nurses will transfer to the new medical center.