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By Anne O’Connor

AYER — Supporters of a petition to save the jobs of three emergency room nurses were met at the door.

A representative of the Nashoba Valley Medical Center told the group of about 15 people that Sal Perla, president of the hospital, was not available. He asked for people to remain outside and then accepted the paperwork at noon Tuesday.

The petition was addressed to Perla. The community hospital belongs to Steward Health Care System.

The staff cuts came three months after the first-ever contract between the nurses and the hospital, supporters said. Two 36-hour a week positions and one 24-hour a week position was cut.

Later in the afternoon, Steward released a statement through a spokesman, Doug Rubin of North Wind Strategies.

“In order to efficiently and safely care for our patients and in full conformity with the collective bargaining agreement with the Massachusetts Nurses Association, we have adjusted the emergency room staffing schedule by two nurse full-time equivalents. We are confident that this adjustment of two nurse FTEs out of 132 nurses is manageable and prudent and in no way will impact the exceptional care we provide to our patients.

“We look forward to working with the MNA to continue promoting the outstanding quality care we provide to our patients every day at Nashoba Valley Medical Center.”

In the week and a half since the changes were announced, union and community supporters gathered nearly 1,000 signatures protesting the reduction in staff, they said. The signatures were obtained in person and online.

The staff reduction means that the number of registered nurses in the emergency department will be reduced from four to three between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., said a press release from the MNA. The number of patients per nurse will increase between 25 to 33 percent.

The patient load has remained constant for the past two years, the release said.

The hospital may see an increase in emergency room visits. The Federal Medical Center in Devens recently signed a contract to bring their prisoners in need of acute care to Nashoba instead of Leominster Hospital, said Joe Gaucher, executive vice president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 0222 Council of Prisons at FMC Devens. The corrections officer handed the petition to the NVMC representative.

“My fellow corrections officers and I are very concerned about the nursing cuts in the emergency room at Nashoba Valley Medical Center,” Gaucher said in the press release. “That’s the hospital nearest to us and we very often need to take inmates to a hospital for emergency care.

“When that happens, it’s imperative that our inmates are seen and treated as quickly as possible so as to reduce the potential safety risk to the greater community. We are very concerned that fewer nurses will mean longer wait times in the emergency department.”

The nurses said they put patient safety and service first.

“The RNs of NVMC are, and always will be, entirely dedicated to the health and well-being of the community,” said Fran Kraska, RN and co-chair of the nurses’ MNA bargaining unit, in the press release. “I think that’s why the public support has been so quick and strong.”

“The amount of time RNs will have to spend with individual patients and their families will decrease,” the release quotes Audra Sprague, emergency department RN. “Transfers to other facilities are going to increase.”

“The nurses have always worked hard to keep the wait time short for our emergency department patients,” she said. “Now, with these cuts, we will not be able to maintain that standard no matter how hard we work. We just hope and pray that this will not negatively affect the community’s perception of the hospital.”

Others spoke out against the cuts, according to the press release.

“As the State Senator who represents many communities that Nashoba Valley Medical Center serves, I am deeply concerned that just a month after the nurses at NVMC settled a contract that involved 16 months of bargaining, Nashoba Valley Medical Center has decided to lay off nursing staff, and in the emergency department of all places,” said State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, who represents 14 communities, including Harvard, Littleton, Ayer, and Shirley.

“The elimination of a 12-hour nursing shift every day in the ER is likely to have a dramatic impact on the timeliness of care that patients receive. I hope that the executives at NVMC, and Steward Healthcare, will listen to their community and reconsider their decision,” he said.

“Nurses are vital to the operation of any medical facility,” said Steve Tulli, president of the Ayer Shirley Regional Education Association, Inc. “But, in particular, the nurses in the ED at Nashoba have served the students in our local communities … tending to their injuries resulting from athletic competitions and other school activities. At this critical time, it is imperative that staffing be adequate. ”

The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2544 Ayer Fire Department wrote a letter of support to reconsider the reduction in staff. “We fear that the planned reduction in nursing staff in the ED will cause an immediate erosion of the quality of care provided,” said the letter signed by the president of the union, Jeremy Januskiewicz.

Follow Anne O’Connor on Twitter and Tout @a1oconnor.

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