Healthcare workers, leaders at odds against safe staffing bill

SPOKANE, Wash. — With COVID-19 putting hospital staff on the edge, the legislature introduced a bill creating new standards for health care settings.

While the bill seems like the solution for some, hospital leaders feel this is not the way to fix the crisis.

Spokane Representative Marcus Riccelli introduced House Bill 1868. The bill plans to limit the number of patients a health care worker can treat, varying on each department. It also includes doubling down on rest and meal breaks, Riccelli said.

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been calling these frontline health care workers heroes, but it’s not enough that we call them heroes. We need to make sure they have safe workplace standards,” Riccelli said.

According to the bill, if hospitals violate these new standards, they could get fined.

For most healthcare workers, their current workload has them burned out. Callie Allen, a registered nurse at Sacred Heart Medical Center, said staffing and patient ratios were a problem before the pandemic; COVID-19 just made it worse.

“I don’t know how long I can continue to do this, because it is absolutely wearing on me,” said Allen.

Allen wants this bill to pass, feeling overworked and not knowing if she wants to continue the job she loves. She says she’s being stretched thin and is bound to break.

“I found myself going, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ I said those words. My husband was holding me and he was like, ‘If you don’t want to do this, that’s okay. We’ll figure it out.'” she explained. “But, that’s the thing – I don’t not want to do this. I want to be a nurse. I just want to be a nurse in a safe way, and I want to be able to do it the way we used to be able to do it. I want it to be better.”

While it wasn’t immediately clear how many patients Allen has been helping as a labor and delivery nurse, the new bill said it would be a one worker to a two-patient ratio in that department. It’d be one-to-one for a patient in active labor.

In a press briefing on Thursday, hospital leaders say this bill could “deepen the staffing crisis.”  They believe it could create even more obstacles.

Providence’s Chief Executive Officer Susan Stacey believes something needs to be done and wants to take care of the workforce, but doesn’t think this bill will do it.

“These solutions won’t address the underlying drivers of staff shortages,” Stacey said.

She said the bill and the nationwide nursing shortage would make compliance “impossible” and it would take away the flexibility in the way services are staffed right now.

“There are simply not enough nurses in the state and country to meet our current demand, let alone the increase of demand this bill would bring,” she said.

Not only that, Stacey said hospitals would not have the capacity to take care of patients if this bill passed.

“What we need from our legislators is to support solutions for growth and build a health care workforce of tomorrow, not mandates that are going to compromise our capacity to be able to take care of our patients today,” Stacey said.

Both Stacey and the CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association said more money needs to be invested in its healthcare training and educational programs.

Riccelli agrees is important to have more and new healthcare workers from these programs, but argues that these workers won’t stay if they don’t have safe working conditions.

“I support, and I think anyone would absolutely support training more healthcare workers. But, if you’re just piping them into hospitals where they’ll continue to get burned out within a year by intentional understaffing, then you’re not solving anything. You’re just churning,” he said.

House Bill 1868 just had a hearing last week and is scheduled to go to the House Committee on Labor & Workplace Standards committee on Wednesday.

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