PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A federal mediator arrived Friday at The Aroostook Medical Center to assist in contract negotiations between the hospital and 150 nurses there represented by the Maine State Nurses Association/National Nurses United.

Bargaining sessions began on Thursday at the Academy Street facility, and Vanessa Sylvester, a spokeswoman for the union, said she was not sure what the next step would be if negotiations were to fail Friday.

The contract expired in October 2012, but Sylvester said the union agreed to extend it. At this point, MSNA has proposed language to guarantee that each nurse would be assigned what the union considers a safe number of patients so as not to jeopardize the health of anyone receiving care.

Sylvester pointed out that safety issues, including the late delivery of medications and increased rates of hospital-acquired infections, can arise when hospitals are short staffed.

“Short staffing also contributes to missed meals, poor working conditions and a high turnover rate, which is bad financially for the hospital,” she said.

Lori McPherson, an RN at the hospital, added, “Nurses and patients at TAMC need guaranteed safe staffing assignments so that we, as nurses, have the ability to provide safe, effective and therapeutic care. Safe staffing saves patient lives.”

Jason Parent, director of advancement at TAMC, said Friday evening that everyone at the hospital is committed to ensuring patient safety and has taken, and continue to take, great measures in this area.

Six weeks ago, TAMC was honored by The Leapfrog Group with a top “A” Hospital Safety Score, indicating that it ranked nationally among the top hospitals when it came to patient safety.

Parent said that TAMC is focused on the same objectives when it comes to the safety of its patients.

“Our collective goal is to maintain safe staffing levels, which we are confident we have at the present,” he continued. “It is a priority for all concerned, in all that we do, and certainly in the current negotiation with our nurses union.”

Sylvester said the nurses also want TAMC to commit to hiring staff locally. The union claims that TAMC continues to insist the hospital has the right to subcontract out RN jobs at any time and use outside and out-of-state agencies to staff the hospital.

“We want the hospital to hire staff from Aroostook County whenever possible,” Sylvester said Friday. “A nurse who has worked at a hospital for some time knows where the equipment is, where all of the facilities are. On top of that, traveling nurses are expensive. Once in awhile it is OK, but it should not be common practice.”

Parent said that TAMC “takes great pride” in employing local community members and works closely with local higher education institutions to hire nurses who earn their degrees from schools in Aroostook County and the state.

According to Parent, TAMC employs a total of 150 staff nurses. Of that number, 77 percent hold degrees from higher education institutions within the state. Ninety-one percent of those hold degrees from Northern Maine Community College and the University of Maine at Fort Kent, the two colleges in Aroostook County that offer nursing degrees.

In addition, TAMC has been working collaboratively with several other county organizations over the past decade to introduce area high school students to career opportunities in the health care field.