Nurse a calming influence

(Trib Live) Not a day goes by without someone asking Cathy Stoddard what she thinks about the West Penn Allegheny Health System-Highmark debacle.

For the past three years, Stoddard has been president of the union that represents more than 2,000 registered nurses and service employees at Allegheny General, Allegheny Valley and Canonsburg hospitals.

She’s a respected, veteran registered nurse. So it’s no surprise that hundreds of colleagues reach out to her for an answer, a clue — something that would tell them the future at the struggling hospital network is stable and safe.

She is reassuring and confident with her answer, even though it’s anyone’s guess what the future holds.

“We want patients to feel secure,” said Stoddard, a nurse for 23 years, most recently in Allegheny General’s transplant unit. “We need to remain positive and let everyone know that patient quality and patient safety are the priority.”

Hats off to Stoddard for doing the right thing and having a consistent, credible message at a time when emotions are running high. That’s the way it should be from a professional who dedicates her life to helping others.

She reminded me this week that she and others weathered the bankruptcy of Allegheny General Hospital’s former parent, the Allegheny Health, Education and Research Foundation in 1998. Right now, she said, “We need to offer a sense of calm.”

Unfortunately, what we’ve witnessed in the past few weeks from West Penn Allegheny’s board leaders has been quite the opposite. Board officials and administrators appear combative and eager to butt heads with insurer Highmark Inc., the same organization giving millions of dollars to rescue the troubled health system.

Board members say they are acting in the best interest of their employees, but if you talk to employees and physicians, it is clear they remain exceedingly anxious about the future.

That much was evident at a rally on Thursday at the doorstep of West Penn Allegheny’s headquarters in the North Side. Leave it to the politicians at the rally to sum it up best: Everyone feels betrayed. Employees, nurses and doctors were sold on the Highmark-West Penn Allegheny partnership as a sure-fire way to secure a solid future. They were told Highmark would guarantee their jobs, hard-earned salaries and pensions.

Out of nowhere, West Penn Allegheny board members stomped and complained, claiming Highmark breached their affiliation agreement by demanding the health system file for bankruptcy to restructure its nearly $2 billion in debt. The board balked and called a news conference to claim breach.

The result: An unnecessary showdown this week in an Allegheny County courtroom. And the not so obvious result: Spending money they don’t have on attorneys. All this from the board that allowed former CEO Chris Olivia to walk away with a $7.4 million “golden parachute” severance package.

The board’s one-upmanship and legal maneuvers are completely useless. Everyone — physicians, nurses, technicians — begged the board to complete the Highmark deal. What type of leader doesn’t listen to his constituents? Let’s hope they listen to the common sense from people such as Stoddard.