February 3, 2006

UCH nurses push for patient care bill

The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the National Nurses Organizing Committee/California Nurses Association (NNOC/CNA) are bolstering efforts to campaign for HB 2548, the Nursing Care and Quality Improvement Act, a bill that, if passed, would set a minimum nurse-to-patient ratio and ensure protection for nurses who reported violations of this standard.

Many registered nurses across Chicago, including some from the University of Chicago Hospitals (UCH), are organizing their colleagues to lobby legislators to support the bill, according to Ted Cahill, spokesperson of NNOC, which is co-sponsoring the campaign with AFSCME. NNOC’s efforts include sending out postcards to legislators and organizing delegations to communicate directly with local officials. Natasha Khouri, an NNOC organizer, said there have been “many hundreds” of postcards from UCH nurses.

In a Monday press conference, Illinois General Assembly Rep. Mary Flowers introduced the bill, and State Senator Iris Martinez introduced a companion bill in the Senate to start the campaign.

If HB 2548 were passed, it would set state-wide hospital standards such as a minimum one-to-one staff to patient ratio for the operating room and trauma unit, a one-to-two ratio for critical care and intensive care, a one-to-three ratio for emergency and pediatrics units, and a four-to-one ratio for surgical units. The legislation also includes a provision that would fine hospitals found retaliating against nurses who reported violations of the bill, said Ramsin Canon, spokesperson for AFSCME.

The NNOC expects the legislation to decrease nurse turnover and draw registered nurses to hospitals considered at an unsafe level of staffing, according to Cahill.

UCH nurse Pam Merrimam said the bill would provide patient safety, and increase nurse retention by lessening “burnouts.” “It’s a very fast-paced and intensive job. If you don’t have backing—like the law—the management will basically do what they will,” she said of the policy allowing hospitals to set their own staff ratios.

California is the only state to have enacted legislation of this kind, and similar bills are being proposed in 20 states, a press release said. Shum Preston, an NNOC spokesperson, called the legislation “a real solution to the nursing crisis,” claiming that the state of California has witnessed an increase in nurses since the bill was put into effect in 2004.

Danny Chun, spokesperson for the Illinois Hospital Association (IHA), of which the U of C is a member, said the IHA was against the bill and “imposing a rigid set of numbers” rather than having the hospitals set their own staffing base, citing reasons such as the range of hospital types across the state, the need to consider each case on an individual basis, and rising costs for hospitals.

UCH spokesperson John Easton said UCH opposes the bill because it pays “insufficient attention to patient acuity and variability in nurses’ skill and shows a lack of flexibility for education and communication.”