July 25, 2012
By Joe Maniscalco
Nurses convinced that the growing trend to slash hospital staff and privatize treatment is endangering the lives of patients, held a summit on Tuesday morning to push for passage of the Safe Staffing for Quality Care Act now awaiting action in the New York State Legislature.
“Many of our patients don’t make it because there’s not enough of us to get the work done to protect them and give them the care that they need,” New York State Nursing Association representative Marva Wade told fellow union members and supporters inside the New Yorker Hotel, located at 481 Eighth Avenue. “We’re nurses – and we need to want to do something about that.”
If enacted, the Safe Staffing for Quality Care Act would set specific nurse-to- patient ratios in an effort to eliminate the kind of short staffing that proponents – and a growing body of empirical evidence – says inevitably leads to catastrophic outcomes for hospital patients.
A 2006 report published in the Health Affairs journal, for instance, found that more than 6,700 in-hospital patient deaths could be avoided by raising the levels of nurse staffing.
Nevertheless, nurses say that cost-conscious hospitals administrators are continually forcing them to care for more and more patients.
“We do extraordinary things even under the worst circumstances,” Wade continued. “But we can only be at one place at one time.”
In 1993, similar circumstances in California compelled nurses in the Golden State to fight for – and eventually win – passage of a law establishing nurse-to-patient ratios. The California Nurses Association had to battle a decade and go toe-to-toe with then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to achieve victory, but the first- of-its-kind nurse-to-patient law was finally enacted in 2004.
“We knew it would be a fight,” California Nurses Association representative Jill Furillo said. “But everybody deserves to have a high standard of care.”
According to Furillo, not only has patient care in California been enhanced since the establishment of nurse-to-patient ratios, but hospitals there also managed to net billions of dollars in revenue in the process. Labor, too, received a much-needed boost, and membership in the California Nurses Association exploded as well.
“We also inspired other unions to fight,” said Furillo, who credited teachers and firefighters unions in helping to win the battle for nurse-to-patient ratios in California.
Meanwhile, here in New York austerity appears to be the order of the day as evidenced at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn where hundreds are poised to lose their jobs. In addition, the Health and Hospitals Corporation is about to complete the outsourcing of dialysis treatment at nine public hospitals around the city to a private for-profit company called Atlantic Dialysis Management Services, Inc.
Less than a week ago, New York State Nurses Association representative Leon Bell testified before an HHC committee in opposition to further privatize plans that would mean “The same volume of patients but with 60 percent fewer RN hours per patient.”
“Sixty percent is the bare minimum,” Bell said at Tuesday’s nurses’ summit. “The real number is probably 70 to 80 percent RN cuts. The other thing is using more non-RN ancillary staff in place of the RN staff, and staffing legislation would address that directly.”
Health Professional & Allied Employees representative Ann Twomey challenged nurses to flex their muscles in order to get the Safe Staffing for Quality Care Act passed.
“We have more unionized nurses here in the northeast than anywhere else – why aren’t we using that power?” Twomey said.
The State House in Massachusetts has twice passed “safe staffing” legislation, but as Massachusetts Nurses Association lobbyist Charlie Stefanini lamented, “Nothing got over the goal line.”
“This will unify the hospitals industry against you,” Stefanini warned.
A great number of elected officials in New York State Legislature have signed onto the Safe Staffing for Quality Care Act as sponsors. Still, supporters know that will not be enough to win the fight for nurse-to-patient ratios or “safe staffing” legislation in New York.
“The private health care industry, the insurance companies, the hospital associations are all going to fight us tooth and nail,” said Wade. “But we are ready to take them on.”