Judge upholds law requiring established nurse-to-patient ratios
Friday, May 28, 2004
By Lori Stuenkel
GILROY - A judge dismissed a hospital industry challenge to a state law that says hospitals must hire substitute nurses to cover those who are on break.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Gail Ohanesian upheld a California law that says established nurse-to-patient ratios in hospitals must be maintained "at all times."
Ohanesian ruled that hospitals must comply by hiring additional nurses to cover for those who are taking a break, no matter what the length.
The California Healthcare Association had challenged the interpretation of the law, saying that a current nursing shortage makes it was impossible to always meet the required ratios, such as having four patients to every emergency room nurse.
Ohanesian wrote that relaxing the "at all times" expectation "would make the nurse-to-patient ratios meaningless."
"We're very disappointed," said Jan Emerson, a vice president of California Healthcare Association, which represents 400 hospitals, including Saint Louise Regional in Gilroy.
Emerson said the group may contest the ruling.
"We have considered all options, including an appeal, but we have not decided yet," she said.
Vivian Smith, spokesperson for Saint Louise, said the hospital has already hired extra nurses to cover those who temporarily leave for breaks.
"We have been staffing that way since state-mandated staffing and we were proactive in that," she said. "And, we will continue to do so. But it will continue to be a challenge every day because you can never predict when people will get sick."
Jo Donahue, a nurse in Saint Louise's intensive care unit, said that proactive approach from hospital and Daughters of Charity management started last year.
"They've been proactive in this community to come up to that standard to keep that ratio safe, and they've been very good about it," she said. "Much better than I've heard about at other hospitals."
The state's largest nurses union, the California Nurses Association, which sponsored the staffing law, celebrated Wednesday's ruling. On the day of the hearing, May 14, about 500 nurses rallied outside the Capitol and marched to the courthouse.
"This ruling slams the door shut and makes it clear beyond doubt that patients are entitled to safe care at all times," said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the 57,000-member union, in a statement.
The hospital group said the ruling is a disservice to patients.
"We think that the requirement to reassign patients to substitute nurses any time their assigned nurses take a phone call, go to the bathroom or are on a break, is not good for patient care," Emerson said. "It's very disruptive - you get nurses who don't know the patient."
The ruling, nurses say, means patients at hospitals, including Saint Louise, will be better protected because there will always be an adequate number of nurses on staff.
Nurses in other states are planning to pursue similar laws.
"The nursing association fought hard for that law," said Donahue, the Saint Louise nurse. "(The 'at all times' requirement) gives teeth to the legislation."
Without substitute nurses to relieve others for breaks, she said, depending on the condition of a patient, some nurses could be on duty for 12 hours straight with no break, putting patients and nurses at risk.