Nurses' leader says governor oversteps authority on staffing
More staff needed to protect patients, union president tells packed hearing
By Timm Herdt, therdt@VenturaCountyStar.com
January 19, 2005
SACRAMENTO -- The head of the California Nurses Association accused Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration of overstepping its regulatory authority when it suspended a law intended to reduce the patient load for hospital nurses -- a law, she noted, that just a year earlier state regulators had said established "the leanest staffing ... compatible with safe and quality patient care."
Testifying Tuesday at a hearing on the emergency regulations, nurses union President Deborah Burger said the decision to suspend the nurse staffing ratios overturned the results of a four-year process to determine the maximum ratio needed to ensure patient safety. "These emergency regulations," she said, "threaten the health and safety of hospitalized and emergency room patients."
Burger was the first witness to testify at a hearing that had to be held at the Sacramento Convention Center to accommodate close to 1,000 nurses who came from throughout the state to protest the department's action. The hearing was part of a legally required step the department must take before it can make permanent the emergency action it took in November.
That action delayed for three years the second phase of California's first-in-the-nation law to require hospitals to strictly limit patient loads for hospital nurses. The first phase, which took effect Jan. 1, 2004, set the ratio at six patients to one nurse in medical surgical units, the most common units for acutely ill patients. The second phase was to have taken effect Jan. 1 and would have set the ratio at 5-to-1.
Hospitals defend delay
The California Hospital Association, which sought the change, says the delay is essential because there are not enough registered nurses in the state to meet the demand. Association President C. Duane Dauner accused the nurses union of misleading the public by failing to recognize the shortage of nurses.
"Their assertions simply defy the facts," he said.
In materials distributed to reporters, the Hospital Association asserts that the nurses union was fighting so hard to maintain the staffing ratios because it hoped to use the issue to persuade nurses unions in other states to join the emerging National Nurses Organizing Committee, which the California group is attempting to organize.
The hospital group's flier accuses the CNA of conducting "a vitriolic campaign of misinformation" motivated by its desire to recruit members to the national labor group, "adding millions of dollars each year to CNA coffers."
The political battle between labor and management has intensified over the staffing regulations, with Schwarzenegger being a key figure.
The hospital group bought a series of television ads last month praising Schwarzenegger for his decision to suspend the new regulations, an action it said protected patients by helping to keep hospital beds open.
The nurses union accuses Schwarzenegger of kowtowing to the healthcare industry, whose executives have contributed more than $1 million to support his political campaigns.
'The Terminator' changes mind
The administration, Burger testified, "was required to become 'The Terminator' of unsafe hospital nurse staffing practices. What happened? The governor and his administration ... acceded to the wishes of the hospital industry."
Confronted by protesting nurses at a speech last month in Long Beach, Schwarzenegger referred to them as a "special interest" that was upset because "I am always kicking their butts."
On Tuesday, Press Secretary Margita Thompson said Schwarzenegger's decision to delay implementation of the law was based solely on policy concerns.
"We have a healthcare crisis; we have hospital closings," she said. "We need to maintain adequate patient care, and we have the lowest nurse-patient ratios in the entire country. But at the same time we need to make sure we keep hospitals open."
Beth Capell, representing the Service Employees International Union, testified she found it curious the nurse-staffing law represented an emergency to the administration, but not other pressing healthcare issues.
Citing what she called inadequate Medi-Cal reimbursement rates that have forced many doctors to refuse to treat poor patients and the more than 6 million Californians who have no health insurance, Capell said, "We have lots of emergencies that demand emergency regulations."