A thoughtful discussion about the alarming increase in the use of heroin was one of the highlights of NYSUT's Professional Forum on Health Care, held last weekend in the Albany area.
Heroin is "in all our communities," said Lee Livermore, public health education coordinator for SUNY Upstate Medical Center. "Heroin is huge. I'd say it's the #1 topic right now... it's highly addictive."
Livermore, a member of United University Professions for SUNY faculty and staff, came to the health care forum to learn about drugs from the addiction perspective. Because heroin is so processed, "the purity of it is always in question... it gets cut, down the distribution line," he said. This makes the danger of overdose more likely. Heroin can be snorted, smoked or injected. It is cheap to buy, plentiful and appeals to addicts who are coming off opiates and want a stronger high, or can't get pills as easily as they used to.
As a public educator at Upstate's Poison Control Center, Livermore tracks drug exposures and presents programs on drugs that are often abused. To fortify his learning, he attended a forum session by UUPer Brian Freidenberg, clinical psychologist and addiction behavior specialist for the University at Albany. Along with other health care professionals, he learned to identify addiction patterns and the psychological consequences of family addiction on children, and about the processes and levels of family recovery. The room was full of school nurses, speech therapists, hospital and visiting nurses, school psychologists, social workers and other health care professionals trying to find solutions for family members - especially students - affected by addiction.
The 124 participants came to the forum to earn continuing education credits and find tools for dealing with autism, licensure protection, school and mental health partnerships, crises and tragedy, and diabetes management in schools, among other topics.
Anne Goldman of the UFT, chair of NYSUT's Professional Health Care Council, told the group that it is important to continue to advocate for needed services and staffing in schools, hospitals and in home care. Administrators are trying to contain costs, she said, "but these 'products' are children and people. They are vulnerable."
The Visiting Nurse Service of New York recently laid off approximately 775 employees, including 400 members of the UFT/Federation of Nurses. Their corporate model of restructuring deemed staff educators, orientation providers and other positions as unnecessary. In December, the company laid off about 500 nurses after a state investigation into VNS determined it had recruited able-bodied senior citizens for a Medicaid-funded program intended for frail elderly. VNS was forced to repay $33.6 million to Medicaid. That layoff left nurses with large caseloads, and patients in need.
"We have to educate the public about our knowledge... and our ability to respond," Goldman said. "You are the lifeline. You are the communication... Let us be the gatekeepers. Let us provide individuals with the strength and expertise to bring them forward to achieve their greatness."
She challenged the health care professionals to work with their local unions and get involved in launching educational programs "so people understand why you need the work of guidance counselors, of therapists…"
A large part of professional health care equation, Goldman said, is how that practice is interpreted. "Don't accept being pushed to treat in a compromised way. We don't have a do-over button, do we?" asked Goldman, who is UFT vice president for non -Department of Education members. Being asked to constantly do more with less, and to work unscheduled hours while sleep-deprived is "lowering the bar."
Medical errors are the third-leading killer in the United States each year, behind heart disease and cancer, said Amy Clary, assistant director of health care for the American Federation of Teachers.
"What makes the patient safe is when front-line caregivers are empowered," Clary said. Union contracts protect health care workers when they speak out about unsafe practices and short staffing.
Hospitals have become for-profit institutions and eight-figure hospital executive salaries could become the norm, she said. Meanwhile, front-line caregivers are asked to do more and more, and hospitals are not investing in equipment.
Union wages help reduce the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Unions, Clary said, can "stem the tide of for-profit health care."
Clary said 18 percent of the gross domestic product is spent on health care. The cost of American health care is predicted to reach $4.2 trillion, and the big benefiters are the pharmaceutical industries, racking up profits from over-prescribed medicine.
Cynthia McDaniel, named NYSUT 2014 Health Care Professional of the Year, told the group why "home care is my passion." One patient was a bedbound, a 98-year-old carpenter, unable to move from the waist down. He hadn't been outside in 20 years. Until McDaniel came along and made it happen, getting the man outside and into a park.
Nursing, she said, includes making sure patients "have some kind of life."
The patient told her no one had ever tried to get him outside.
"That's what home care is all about. You're supposed to make a difference every day," said McDaniel, who received two standing ovations.