March 10, 2022

Nurse Safe Staffing Bill Fails in Washington Senate

Nurse Safe Staffing Bill Fails in Washington Senate

Safe staffing and nursing ratios has become a VERY hot topic recently, despite the ongoing problem for years. Petitions are being signed, rallies are being held, and national media has finally picked up on this serious problem. 

High patient-to-nurse ratios have proven to decrease patient outcomes, a higher risk of infections, an increase in patient falls, and a decrease in overall patient satisfaction. However, healthcare systems are not addressing the issues and many feel there needs to be legislation that caps the number of patients a nurse can care for. 

Recently, Washington was the latest state to try and implement a bill for safe staffing in hospitals. The legislation, House Bill 1868, passed the Washington State House on Feb. 13 and died in the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. 

According to the government website, “the Senate Ways and Means Committee considers the operating and capital budget bills and related legislation, including the authorization of state debt.  The committee also deals with tax policy and other fiscal issues such as pension policy and compensation in addition to bills with operating budget fiscal impacts.”

How The Bill Would Have Helped

The bill was posed to do a lot of good for the nursing profession. Specifically, it would have limited the number of patients direct care registered nurses could be assigned for any shift. Minimum staffing standards would have varied by unit, and hospitals would have faced fines for noncompliance with staffing plans. 

This would have been a statewide law that all healthcare institutions had to follow. Typically, safe staffing numbers are seen at union hospitals; however, this would have affected both union and non-union institutions. 

“We cannot wait another year – we need enforceable safe staffing standards now that allow us to do our jobs safely and give patients the care they deserve,” said Ademola Adeyemo, a certified nursing assistant in the surgical unit at UW Medical Center - Northwest in Seattle and a member of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW. “For years we have been sounding the alarm about chronic staffing shortages, which existed well before COVID. We need solutions now.”

Support for the Bill

In 2021, the Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA) joined health care unions SEIU 1199NW and UFCW 21, which represent more than 71,000 healthcare workers in the state, to form WA Safe + Healthy. This coalition called on Washington state legislators to pass safe staffing standards for the health and safety of workers and patients.

The coalition outlined better outcomes for not only the patients and healthcare workers but would also benefit the hospitals in the long term. As laid out, the coalition said, 

  • Better safety for workers - Safe staffing standards that protect any one healthcare worker from dangerously high patient loads will help them do their jobs safely.
  • Better care for patients - Safe staffing standards will ensure patients get the quick, safe, and responsive care they deserve.
  • Better staffing in hospitals - Safe staff standards will begin to address the hospital staffing crisis by reducing burnout and ensuring safe, manageable workplaces.

“I’ve been a nurse for 26 years, and I’ve never seen so many colleagues leaving,” said Julia Barcott, a critical care nurse at Astria Toppenish Hospital and WSNA union leader. “They are retiring early, they are leaving to become travelers, and they have gone to less stressful jobs in clinics or freestanding surgical centers to get out of the pressure cooker that has become bedside care. This has meant that we are scrambling to cover our patients’ needs – it’s bad for nurses and healthcare workers, and it’s bad for patients.”

A poll was conducted to union members and nurses throughout the state that reinforced the need for safe staffing. The numbers indicated that,

  • 84% of healthcare workers say they’re burned out
  • 49% say they're likely to quit healthcare in the next few years
  • 71% of those say short-staffing is one of the biggest reasons

The numbers are staggering and merely represent the ongoing struggles of healthcare professionals throughout the country. The need for safe staffing was reflected in the voters supporting safe staffing standards (74%) during the general election. 

Unfortunately, despite the overwhelming support of not only healthcare workers but also the general population in Washington, the Senate decided to kill the bill at this time. Hospitals were overjoyed with the news as they warned the Senate that they anticipated permanent care delays and cuts to services if the legislation were to be enacted. According to reports, the bill can be revisited during the 2023 meetings. 

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