Nurses take staffing fight to Legislature

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 28, 2012 - 11:02 PM

Standoff over staffing ratios prompted one-day strike in 2010.

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Minnesota Nurses Association President Linda Hamilton, left, Sen. Jeff Hayden and Rep. Larry Howes announced the introduction of the staffing legislation at a news conference Tuesday.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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The Minnesota Nurses Association, which made "safe staffing" its rallying cry during a one-day strike in 2010, is calling for legislation to set a limit on how many patients may be assigned to hospital nurses.

At a press conference in St. Paul Tuesday, union leaders accused hospital officials of breaking promises made after the strike to work with nurses to address staffing questions. They also said they collected nearly 1,000 reports in the last half of 2011 from nurses who said patients were endangered by inadequate staffing levels.

"We've been left with no choice but to take our concerns to the state Legislature," said Linda Hamilton, president of the nurses association.

Hospital officials, however, say they take all safety concerns "very, very seriously," and that rigid staffing rules are not the answer.

"I think our members are working very hard with their nurses to try to address these things in real time," said Lawrence Massa, president and CEO of the Minnesota Hospital Association.

He said the union has ignored requests to share its unsafe-staffing reports with the hospitals, so it's impossible to know if they're accurate.

The new legislation, called the 2012 Staffing for Patient Safety Act, would set a maximum number of patients for each nurse, depending on the level of care required. For example: no more than three patients per nurse in emergency departments, or four patients per nurse in medical and surgical units.

Union officials were joined by two legislative supporters, Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker. Hayden said the Legislature generally "doesn't like to get in the middle" of such disputes, but that in this case, "it's a necessary evil."

Two years ago, the union tried unsuccessfully to get hospitals to set specific nursing ratios as part of a new contract, a goal the national union has pressed in other states as well.

Ratios termed unworkable

Hospital officials argued that staffing ratios are expensive and unworkable.

The standoff led to a one-day walkout by some 12,000 Minnesota nurses in June 2010. They eventually reached an agreement that called for the two sides to work together on staffing concerns.

But the problem is "worse than ever," according to a statement released by the union. Hamilton said the hospitals have been "stonewalling" attempts to address safety concerns, and that "we need legislation like this to hold hospital administrators accountable and keep our patients safe.''

The union cited several examples of staffing reports filed by nurses in 2011, although it declined to give details because of privacy laws. One said that a patient had fallen, "with significant injuries," because the nurses had too many sick patients at the time. Another said a nurse was unable to properly comfort the parents of a dying baby because she had to care for another infant at the time. The union said the incidents are typically reported to hospital supervisors at the time.

Massa, though, said hospitals need flexibility to respond to changing demands, not inflexible ratios. "We both want to see the best quality care for our patients," he said. "We just don't think that this is the right way to approach it."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384

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