From applause for front-line workers during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic to local discounts and gifts of “chocolate bars and chicken fingers,” proclaimed Greg Lowe, 2020 was the year of the nurse. The president of HCA Healthcare’s North Carolina division, which manages Asheville’s Mission Health, says the system has relied on its nursing team to get through the pandemic largely unscathed.
But Mission’s eight hospitals are now gearing up for a major nursing shortage, Lowe told members of Asheville’s Council of Independent Business Owners during a May 7 meeting. While an “exciting” announcement about a new way to approach and augment hiring is coming soon, he said, finding enough skilled nursing staff is currently HCA’s biggest challenge.
In 2020, Mission’s hospitals saw more than 2 million patients, treated over 1,600 COVID-19 patients and conducted more than 51,000 telehealth calls, Lowe said. No employees faced furloughs or layoffs resulting from the coronavirus-driven postponement of elective surgical procedures, and workers deemed nonessential were instead given “pandemic pay” at 70% of their normal wages in exchange for staying home.
When asked by Xpress about the status of ongoing negotiations between HCA staff and representatives from the newly formed Mission Hospital chapter of the National Nurses United union, Lowe said the parties were currently in the bargaining stages. In September, more than 70% of roughly 1,400 Mission Hospital nurses voted to unionize, the largest hospital union win in the South since 1975.
“They’ve been moving things along, and we’re hearing positive feedback with the bargaining process that’s occurring right now,” Lowe said.
Matters of state
In the second half of the virtual CIBO meeting, N.C. House Rep. Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, shared an update on a series of bills making their way through the state’s General Assembly. The last week has been a “whirlwind of votes” as members prepare for the legislative crossover deadline of Thursday, May 13, by which bills must pass a floor vote to move to the other governing chamber for consideration.
Bills are coming at members “fast and furiously,” Turner said. On May 5-6 alone, House members had passed over 70 pieces of legislation, he said, with more likely to pass as the deadline nears.
Local legislation of note includes House Bill 400, which would change the composition of the Asheville City Board of Education from a five-member appointed body to a seven-member elected board. The bill passed a House vote on May 6; Turner gave no indication when the Senate would discuss the item or take a vote.
House Bill 781, which would designate “social districts” where people can openly carry alcoholic beverages, is expected to go up for a House vote next week. Turner, who is among the bill’s co-sponsors, said he sees it as a possible business driver for downtown restaurants. “Imagine going somewhere like Pack’s Tavern, getting a beer, and if there happens to be a festival in the city and county plaza, you could walk over with your beer and enjoy whatever is happening there,” he explained.
Turner did not mention any legislation to change the local occupancy tax distribution, which was requested by Asheville City Council in February. But at a February CIBO meeting, Republican Sen. Chuck Edwards told participants that changes to the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority’s tax allocation were off the table.