Court upholds nurse-staffing law
Friday, May 28, 2004 - 3:06:00 AM PST
State staffing law for nurses upheld
By Rebecca Vesely, STAFF WRITER
A Sacramento Superior Court judge rejected a hospital challenge Wednesday to a landmark state law mandating nurse staffing levels -- ruling the claims were "without merit."
Hospitals sued the state two days before the law went into effect Jan. 1, arguing that a provision requiring minimum staffing levels "at all times" misinterpreted the law's intent.
The California Healthcare Association, the lobbying arm for 450 hospitals, also said the provision was impossible to meet due to a nationwide nursing shortage.
But Judge Gail Ohanesian ruled that hospitals must staff enough nurses so colleagues could go on meal or rest breaks without exceeding the ratios set by the law.
"Any other interpretation would make the nurse-to-patient ratios meaningless," Ohanesian wrote in her 12-page decision.
The Oakland-based California Nurses Association, which sponsored the law, called the decision a decisive victory.
"This ruling slams the door shut and makes it clear beyond a doubt that patients are entitled to safe care at all times," said Rose Ann DeMoro, the association's executive director.
The California Healthcare Association said the ruling jeopardizes hospitals' ability to comply with the ratios.
"The constant assigning and reassigning of patients to different nurses throughout a shift is disruptive and not in the best interest of quality patient care," Vice President Dorel Harms said in a statement.
Traditionally, nurses cover one another when they go on breaks. But the staffing law -- the first in the nation -- ended that practice by requiring nurses to maintain only their maximum number of patients.
So, for instance, emergency room nurses in California can only be assigned a maximum of four patients each, according to the law. If one ER nurse goes on lunch break, a nurse with no assigned patients must be found to take over care for those four patients.
"The industry should be embarrassed for their attempts to undermine the continuous standard requirement that placed in danger all safety regulations in hospitals," DeMoro said in a statement.
The hospital association said its members may have to delay patient admissions, discharge patients sooner or cancel elective surgeries to comply with the ratios.
The nurse staffing law was signed by then-Gov. Gray Davis in 1999, and the state Department of Health Services held numerous rounds of public com-
ment to set the ratios before the law went effect four years later.