Backus Hospital says it will eliminate 15 LPN positions

Norwich - Fifteen licensed practical nurses at The William W. Backus Hospital have been told their jobs will be eliminated by the end of the year so that inpatient care areas will be staffed entirely by registered nurses.

Hospital spokesman Shawn Mawhiney said Monday the decision was made in the interests of improving patient care and efficiency. State and federal regulations limit the kinds of care LPNs can provide, or require that they do certain tasks only under the supervision of an RN. Registered nurses, who have more schooling, can perform more of the tasks required for the sicker, more complex patients currently being admitted to hospitals, Mawhiney said. He noted that Backus has not hired an LPN for inpatient care since 2002.

"We believe LPNs have important skills that can transition well to other areas," he said.

In addition to the LPNs in inpatient areas, Backus employs seven other LPNs in outpatient areas whose jobs will continue unchanged, he said.

Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London has 34 LPNs among its nursing staff and is not planning any changes, said Mike O'Farrell, L&M spokesman. The LPNs work in both inpatient and outpatient areas.

Ironically, while LPN jobs are being eliminated at Backus, the state recently reinstated an LPN adult education training program that had been offered at some technical high schools until it was cut last spring. Norwich Technical High School and five others will restart the 18-month program the week. Tuition will be $10,200, more than double what it was last year. Thus far 237 people have been accepted for 250 slots.

Nationally, most LPNs earn between $33,360 and $46,710, with the top pay at about $53,600, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most RNs earn between $51,640 and $76,750. An LPN's scope of duties includes giving certain medications, helping patients dress and bathe and recording patient information such as vital signs, while an RN can assess a patient and prepare a care plan, evaluate patient responses, administer all medications and act on any changes requiring immediate attention, Mawhiney said.

The 15 Backus LPNs will be eligible to apply for other jobs at the hospital and at Backus' satellite facilities, or can take advantage of an existing tuition reimbursement program if they want to enroll in an RN program at a local college, Mawhiney said. They will also be offered six career counseling sessions. Backus will increase the number of RNs to make up for the 15 positions, but the exact number of new hires has not been determined. About 450 RNs currently work at the hospital.

One longtime Backus LPN who asked not to be named said that neither the jobs being offered at Backus - such as in medical coding and home care - nor those available for LPNs outside the hospital - such as in long-term care facilities - are appealing.

"I love my job," she said. "I don't want to work in a nursing home."

Backus, she said, should phase out LPN positions by letting the 15 stay through retirement and not hiring new LPNs. Most of her colleagues in inpatient care areas have also been at the hospital for many years and are near the top of their pay and benefits scale, she said.

"It's probably cheaper for them to hire new RNs," she said.

The differences in what LPNs and RNs are allowed to do have been exaggerated, she added, and there have been no recent major changes in regulations.

"We're all upset," she said. "Everybody's scared."

Mawhiney denied the hospital is eliminating the LPN jobs either to save money or to qualify for special prestigious status with the American Nurses Association. Ottamissiah Moore, president of the National Federation of Licensed Practical Nurses, said pursuit of the Magnet Status designation has motivated many other hospitals across the country to eliminate LPN jobs.

The trend began most recently three years ago, she said, although there have been several peaks and valleys in LPN employment at hospitals over the last three decades.

"Most LPNs are underutilized," Moore said, adding that many simply need a few hours of training in a particular procedure to be able to do the task, such as starting an IV.

Some hospitals are eliminating LPNs and replacing them with a smaller number of RNs and nursing assistants, she said, as a way to cut costs. But she predicted that the new federal health care law will increase the demand for LPNs and virtually all others with medical skills, as more people have health insurance coverage and seek care.

"They're going to need everyone," she said.

She also pointed to a study titled, "The LPN: A Practical Way to Alleviate the Nursing Shortage," by the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon. It advocated a reversal of the decline of LPNs at hospitals.

LPNs moved from inpatient care to other jobs, she added, will not be as productive as they can be.

"It's important that you work in your area of interest, because that's where you'll excel," Moore said.

j.benson@theday.com

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