Hospital staffing bill gains widespread support in Assembly

Gazette photo by Katherine Carroll
Gazette photo by Katherine Carroll

Nurses and nursing students recently stormed the capital in a large rally to support higher staffing levels in all acute care facilities and nursing homes. As the bill makes its way through the Assembly, and continues to pick up sponsors, supporters are optimistic the bill may pass this session after decades of debate.

The “safe staffing” bill, A.8580-a, sponsored by Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, D-Forestburgh, would set a statewide standard for nurse-to-patient ratios in all units in all hospitals and nursing homes for every shift, based on recommendations by the Department of Health.

The bill would also require hospitals and nursing homes to maintain staffing records for all shifts, set minimum staffing requirements, allow nurses to refuse work assignments if minimum staffing is not present, and force facilities to submit a detailed staffing plan to the Department of Health every year before receiving an operating certificate. It even proposes penalties if the standards are not met.

Tara Martin, political director for the New York State Nurses Association, said nurses in New York are currently responsible for seeing anywhere from nine to 14 patients at a time, an unsafe ratio for patient health and an overwhelming ratio for nurses to handle, she said.

The only other state in the U.S. that has enacted similar measures is California. After a 13-year fight, California’s “safe staffing” law went into effect in January of 2004 and has remained since, despite hospital and healthcare industry efforts to overturn the law.

A lunch at the Empire State Convention Center was followed by lobbying sessions with lawmakers and large rally outside the Capitol earlier this month.

Assemblymen Phil Steck, Richard Gottfried, Angelo Santabarbara and Ken Zabrowski, along with Assemblywomen Shelley Mayer, Ellen Jaffee and Karrie Woerner all sat elbow to elbow with nurses during the lunch.

Following the lunch, an estimated 1,800 nurses and their supporters marched outside to the Capitol lawn to hear from nurses, patients and legislators who are hoping to pass the bill this session.

Supporters of the bill say the new regulations will improve patient safety, boost job satisfaction and reduce turnover among caregivers, and actually cut down on the cost to hospitals by reducing cases of malpractice, death, infections and other “adverse” outcomes.

The bill language cites research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that estimates five additional deaths per 1,000 patients in hospitals which routinely staff with 1:8 nurse-to-patient ratios, compared to those staffing with 1:4 nurse-to-patient ratios. This same study determined the odds of patient death increased by 7 percent for each additional patient the nurse must care for at one time.

During their march to the Capitol, the nurses shouted “Safe staffing saves lives!” and “Safe staffing now!” as they marched from the convention center to West Capitol Park, in front of the Smith building.

Applause erupted as lawmakers stepped up to the podium to voice their support for safe staffing.

Gunther, a nursing veteran with over two decades of experience, received a standing ovation after she addressed a sea of red-clad active nurses and nursing students.

“We’ve been screaming about the safety of our patients and this bill since the 90s,” Gunther said “the time is now.”

Originally introduced in the 1990s, the safe staffing bill has been supported by nurses for more than two decades, but has not seen a floor vote in recent years in either chamber. This year, 83 Democratic Assembly members signed on to support the bill. It has been moved out of the Health and Codes committees this session and now resides in Ways and Means.

The Senate bill (S.0782) is sponsored by Kemp Hannon, R-Garden City, the chair of the Health Committee. There are 28 sponsors in that house, but it has sat in the Health Committee there since the first day of session.