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'They Spread Nurses Dangerously Thin': PA Nurses Unions Back Bills On Staffing Levels

Abdeljalil Bounhar
A nurse administers the COVID-19 vaccine to a health worker.

Several statewide nurses unions and Pennsylvania legislators unveiled a series of safe-staffing measures during a virtual press conference Tuesday morning. House Bill 106 and Senate Bill 240, collectively known as the Patient Safety Act, seek to set standards in nurse protections.

“As all of America knows, nurses have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. And today we are here to say that Pennsylvania needs safe staffing to protect nurses, and in turn protect our patients,” said Tarik Khan, president of the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association.

PSNA is throwing its support behind these bills, as are Nurses of PA (NOPA), the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP), and Service Employees International Union Healthcare Pennsylvania (SEIU Healthcare PA).

“It doesn’t matter whether the hospital is for-profit or nonprofit. Nurses are always asked to do more with less. Conglomerates like to run their hospitals lean in order to save money. They spread nurses dangerously thin, and nurses suffer and patient care suffers. This isn’t new,” said Maureen May, president of PASNAP and a longtime nurse at Temple University.

PASNAP represents more than 8,500 nurses and health care professionals across Pennsylvania, many of whom work in the Philadelphia region. Many PASNAP locals fought tooth and nail for staffing grids in their most recent contracts.

Those staffing grids control how many patients a single nurse can care for. That can vary based on the unit. For example, an intensive care unit may have a 2-1 patient-to-nurse ratio.

According to May, many PASNAP locals have been calling attention to this issue since the creation of the union more than two decades ago. COVID-19 added insult to injury.

“But the dramatic influx of very sick patients who require constant demanding care has also exacerbated the staffing crisis and ravaged our mental and emotional health. This is something that our vaccine cannot fix,” May said.

Myra Taylor, a member of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, said the hospital where she works already has made an agreement with the union to add these standards to contracts.

“Because how many patients we care for directly impacts how much care we’re able to provide, our hospital is proof that the standards that would be established by passing the Patient Safety Act do work here in Pennsylvania. But right now, we’re the exception,” Taylor said.

If the legislation makes it through the General Assembly and is eventually signed into law, the Patient Safety Act will mandate unit-specific staffing ratios to ensure there is a safe level of nurses for each patient.

In addition, the bills would establish safe-staffing committees, made up of nurses, that could raise the standards on the fly. The Patient Safety Act would also include protections for whistleblowers and ancillary staff.

For May, nurse scarcity is not necessarily the issue.

“I also want to say that there are enough nurses licensed in the state of Pennsylvania to take care of our patients. The issue is that we don’t have nurses that are willing to work at the bedside with the conditions as they are,” May said.

During Tuesday’s press conference, union representatives stressed that staffing was one of the primary factors for burnout and turnover among nurses. They also pointed to numerous studies that show that nurse staffing levels have an effect on the care and mortality of patients.

In both the State House and Senate, the measures are getting bipartisan support. Sen. Maria Collett, a Democrat, is the prime sponsor of SB 240 — and a registered nurse.

“We know that in jurisdictions where bills like the Patient Safety Act are passed, patient health outcomes improve, hospitals reduce costs, and nurses keep being nurses,” Collett said.

In the House, State Rep. Thomas Mehaffie, a Republican, is the prime sponsor of HB 106.

“[SB 240] is very similar, and if not identical to what House Bill 106 is. I’ll take either bill. I’m very happy to say, if we can get one of these paths, I am going to be elated that we can get this done,” Mehaffie said.

Because the subject of nurse staffing is hardly new, similar legislation has been proposed before. Lawmakers hope that this time, the bills will succeed.

While HB 106 can already be viewed online, SB 240 still has to undergo some language changes, which are expected to take a few weeks, according to Collett.