While preparing to break ground for its $800 million “Vision Northland” project, Essentia Health has boasted of seeking input from its staff on how that vision will play out.

Among its efforts were “virtual reality rooms” — including mock operating rooms, labor and delivery rooms and intensive care unit rooms. More than 350 comments were tabulated from staff who toured the simulations, spokeswoman Shannon Dahnke said.

But the interest is feigned, not real, said one of the Essentia nurses who attended a Duluth City Council meeting on Monday to call attention to unresolved contract issues.

Nurses support Vision Northland, said Chris Rubesch, a registered nurse at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center, in remarks to the council.

“But we want to make sure this project serves our entire community and continues the tradition of high-quality patient care that we provide,” Rubesch said. “We urge Essentia to take meaningful steps of seeking our input, beyond just the trimmings, but real quality interactions, seeking our input in how the design can benefit our patients.”

Nurses from both Essentia and St. Luke’s were on hand at City Hall on Monday, and nurses from both hospitals primarily expressed concerns about what they consider to be chronic and dangerous understaffing. Well over 100 nurses attended, most wearing red or red-and-white shirts with Minnesota Nurses Association logos.

But although St. Luke’s is embarking on a $300 million construction project of its own, the pushback on building plans came from the Essentia side.

In a statement, Dahnke said Essentia has had more than 220 meetings with staff members, including nurses, to provide “critical input on the design of their work areas.”

“Essentia Health staff have played a significant role in designing our replacement St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth to make it a good work environment as well as a good healing environment — and we value their insights and input,” Dahke said.

In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Rubesch said he and other nurses do appreciate the opportunities for input they'd been given. But he described those opportunities as superficial.

For example, Rubesch said, in the unit in which he works, patients are connected to heart monitors. He has been told the room from which those monitors are watched will be on a different floor, which will hamper his ability to care for his patients. He hasn't had the opportunity to learn about or comment on such matters, he said.

In his statement to the council, Rubesch suggested Essentia has been overly focused on the outward appearance of its planned medical center.

“Nurses believe that we should have state-of-the-art buildings, state-of-the-art facilities,” he said. “But we also want to make sure that management is focused on delivering state-of-the-art patient care.”

No mediator?

In its response to the nurses’ City Hall appearance on Monday, St. Luke’s expressed dismay at the Minnesota Nurses Association’s bargaining method.

Eric Lohn, the hospital’s interim CEO and president, said in a statement that St. Luke’s was “confused and disappointed that rather than allowing the negotiating process to work, the MNA has refused to allow the assistance of a mediator.”

But turning to a mediator would be premature, a registered nurse at St. Luke’s argued Tuesday.

“We don’t see the need for a mediator as long as the hospital is prepared to continue to be respectful of our concerns regarding safe staffing, hiring and retention of excellent nurses,” said Pete Boyechko, in a telephone interview.

Although some issues already have been resolved, it’s early with regard to some of the most concerning issues, he said.

The union wants to sit down face to face with administration to discuss those issues before possibly agreeing to a mediator, Boyechko said.

Boyechko, who was among the speakers at Monday’s meeting, was asked if the appearance before councilors also might be considered premature.

He responded that the hospitals are avoiding the most important issues.

“We’ve had productive (talks), but they’re cursory items,” Boyechko said. “They have not addressed any of our recruitment and retention proposals. They have just touched on one of our staffing proposals.”

St. Luke’s and the union did come to an agreement at their last negotiating session on language concerning workplace violence, Boyechko said, and that was a significant matter.