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Unity Center for Behavioral Health

Since the day the Unity Center for Behavioral Health opened its doors in 2017, the employees that work closest with its patients have felt their opinions ignored.

"For two years, it seems like our input wasn't being considered, that we weren't allowed a seat at the table," says Sarah Mittelman, a nurse who's worked at Unity Center's psychiatric emergency department since its inception.

That's why on Monday, Mittleman joined her fellow Unity Center nurses in informing management that they intended to unionize.

"Nurses are trying to stand up and make our community better by offering the best mental health care we can," says Mittleman. "We want to make Unity a shining star."

The Unity Center, a 24-hour clinic run by Legacy Health, was created to streamline Portland's psychiatric emergency services by placing four major hospitals' psychiatric inpatient departments under one roof. This reorganization of Portland's psychiatric emergency care was seen as a major step toward improving the interactions between police officers and people with a mental illness.

Yet, within two years of opening, Unity Center was hit with a blistering investigation by the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), accusing Unity Center of systematically jeopardizing patient safety. In August 2018, the state health agency ordered Unity Center to fix unsafe practices and expand its staff to more adequately care for its high-risk patients.

According to Unity Center's nurses, the program's failures might have been avoided if leadership heeded its nurses' concerns.

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"Nurses and patients were not listened to from the start, which resulted in this bad outcome," says Kevin Mealy, a spokesperson for Oregon Nurses Association (ONA), the union Unity Center nurses are attempting to join. "Now, instead of asking to have a voice, they're demanding to have a voice. That's what a union allows."

Mealy says the 170 nurses who've signed on to unionize (which account for 80 percent of Unity Center's total nurse staff) want to see Unity Center succeed, and want their involvement to change the negative narrative that currently surrounds the budding health center.

If Legacy Health refuses to independently recognize Unity Center's union, Mealy says the nurses will hold an election to make it official in early June.