New York Hospital Nurses Demand “Safe Staffing” Levels

Citing increased patient care, nurses at New York’s three biggest hospital systems are demanding a sharp increase in nursing staff. The group of nurses – 10,000 strong, according to The New York Times – say they are unable to fulfill their responsibilities and provide optimal care to each patient because there are not enough nurses on staff at Mount Sinai, New York-Presbyterian and Montefiore. The union representing the nurses in their negotiations with the hospitals, the New York State Nurses Association, say they are prepared to strike if their demands are not satisfied.

Speaking to The New York Times, Shanna Murphy, a neonatal nurse, said: “I’m often put in a situation where I’m having to choose between patients and not able to fully support my families.” This leads to what Murphy described as “drive-by nursing” where she does not have time to “actually sit with our patients and spend time with our patients and families.” Other nurses agree and cite a 2002 study directly linking patient care to the number of nurses on staff. Published by the Journal of American Medical Association, the research paper found that for every additional nurse the risk of patient fatality reduced by 7 percent.

The shortage of nursing staff has been widely covered in the news in the last several years. Advocates for “safe nursing” levels have tried to legislate a minimum level of staffing. So far, California is the only state to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to nursing staff by regulating the number of nurses per patient in each different medical unit. The rules adopted in California twenty years ago have seen positive results – patient outcomes improved in hospitals which increased staffing to the mandatory minimum levels. Further, the negative outcomes for hospitals never materialized. Patient care advocates correctly note that no hospital filed for bankruptcy and hospitals across California remain more profitable than any point in time. Hoping to harness the good results of the California Model, “Safe Staffing” advocates tried to pass a ballot initiative in Massachusetts regulating the number of nurses last year. The ballot proposal failed after a well-funded advocacy group for hospitals estimated the cost to Massachusetts hospitals would be almost $1 billion.

Now, nurses are trying a different approach by negotiating with their hospitals directly. The hospitals say they are negotiating in good faith and have already made improvements to nursing staff which include increased training and hiring over 2,000 nurses across their hospital systems in just the last four years. To avoid striking nurses, the group of hospitals committed $50 million towards hiring more nurses. Nurses say that number is woefully insufficient and that each of the three hospital systems needs to hire between 300 and 400 more nurses to reach “safe staffing” levels.  According to one nurse who spoke to The New York Times, patients should not “hit a bell and [have] no one come.” Given the cost of healthcare and the high stakes, “that’s just not fair.”

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