Nurses gain traction in Legislature on bills to address ‘dangerous’ staffing

Lawmakers have been moving forward with two bills that would address issues of nurse staffing levels, overtime and rest breaks.

For years, nurses have gone to Olympia, imploring lawmakers to understand that staffing problems were placing patient care at risk.

There are constant staff shortages that force nurses to forgo meals and bathroom breaks in order to properly care for patients. There are the 12-hour nursing shifts that grow longer due to scheduling issues. There are nurse-to-patient ratios that seem to grow more dangerous.

Nurses returned to Olympia last week to reiterate those messages to the Legislature yet again. But this time they have more optimism that lawmakers are listening.

Lawmakers have been moving forward two bills that would address issues of staffing levels, overtime and rest breaks. Both measures have passed the state House and are getting attention in the state Senate.

The issue of nurse staffing was a component in a recent Seattle Times investigation of the neuroscience institute based at Swedish’s Cherry Hill facility. The Times stories exposed a range of problems that arose as the neuroscience institute dramatically grew the number of surgeries it was performing.

Nurses have reported how Cherry Hill staffing levels didn’t keep pace with surging patient workloads. For example, patients in the ICU who would typically get one-on-one care have been watched by nurses caring for a second patient, staffers reported.

Nurses have long sought legislation that would establish nurse-to-patient ratios, giving hospitals around the state minimum standards to follow. That still isn’t happening, but the two sides have come together on a bill, HB 1714, that would give more power to internal hospital staffing committees.

Those panels already help set standards for how units should be staffed, but nurse advocates say the guidelines are often ignored or bypassed. The new bill would give staffers the power to request a state investigation if hospitals don’t comply with staffing plans finalized by the hospital. The plans also would be filed with the state, giving the public more information about each hospital’s staffing levels.

On Thursday, the Senate Health Care Committee voted to advance that bill. It passed the House earlier this month on a 61-36 vote.

On-call loophole

Nurses at Cherry Hill who work to support the facility’s busy operating rooms have also reported facing issues with extended workdays, sometimes working 20 hours in a 24-hour period.

Research shows that long shifts can lead to more mistakes. More than a decade ago, to protect patient safety, Washington lawmakers prohibited hospitals from requiring nurses to work overtime except in unforeseen emergencies. Cherry Hill staffers have reported that they consistently had to work on-call shifts for cases they believed weren’t emergencies.

Ron Cole, a nurse at Cherry Hill who works in various units and also is on his union…

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