The ballot question 1 in Massachusetts (Nurse Patient Assignments Limit Initiative) which will be voted upon November 2018 was designed to establish patient assignment limits for registered nurses working in hospitals, with limits determined by the type of unit or patient with whom a nurse is working, and the maximum numbers of patients assigned would apply at all times. Massachusetts is a hub for medical advancement. In Boston specifically, there are 6 major medical centers within a few feet of one another. Most are teaching hospitals of Harvard University, so staffing, technology, and innovation to support patients and safety are at the forefront of care. Despite that, there has been a push by the Massachusetts Nurses Association (a union) to enact a similar law for over 20 years. It was brought as a ballot question in 2014 but tabled after allowing for a change in ICU staffing ratios (which showed no change in patient mortality or complications, in a study from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center). Now it's more stringent and on the ballot for November 2018.
Why does this ballot question face so much opposition? It seems like more nurses is a good thing, right? No one disagrees that nurses are good, and its beneficial for us to take care of our patients. That being said, attached to this proposed bill is not only tighter staffing ratios than California, a 37-day window to comply (to which California had five years), but there is also a $25,000 fine for each time there is not that exact nursing ratio on the unit. The fine doesn't seem like a big deal: staff appropriately or get a fine, right? What happens when staff call out because they are sick? If you can't find coverage to make a 1:4 ratio on the Med Surg floor, hospitals get hit with a fine, and many of them, especially the smaller hospitals, do not have the money to pay. What about leaving the unit for a lunch break, or getting coffee? Not if it means the nursing ratio will be off for any period of time. Shared governance or interdisciplinary meetings? Sorry, you will have to schedule those on your days off. Because of the quick turnaround time to become compliant, and the few numbers of nurses in MA, any resource staff, unit based educators, and/or clinical nurse specialists will be pulled into staffing. There will not be anyone extra to help and "cover" a patient for a quick break. In California, the law allowed for Licensed Practicing Nurses (LPNs) to be hired to assist with upstaffing, but not in MA; RNs only. Differences also include that MA law has higher RN numbers to start and the bill in MA has a prohibition against reducing levels of other healthcare workers (CA did not). MA does not allow any exemptions, whereas in CA 25 hospitals sought and obtained an exemption from the law.
These fines, threats of fines, and immediate need to upstaff is going to cause numerous hospitals outside of the metro Boston area to close. This will limit access to care, longer drives for patients from the suburbs, and longer wait times to get care (fewer hospitals and services,) shunting everyone into the city. Those hospitals will have the same patient ratio limitations and will be unable to open and further ambulatory services. Currently, according to the 2017's Best & Worst States for Healthcare Massachusetts is ranked #9 overall for Best hospitals (#1 being the best), with California ranked at #25, despite these ratio laws being fully compliant since 2009. Furthermore, Massachusetts has a current ranking of #3 for access to care, meaning access to healthcare is readily available throughout the state. California is ranked #48, meaning the public has less access to healthcare. It's pretty telling that despite making nursing ratios legally required, the state of California has not improved the patients access to care and their overall satisfaction with care.
On top of the other concerns with this bill, the "at all times" language, which requires ratios to be the exact same, day and night, doesn't allow for nurses to use their clinical judgment at all when taking care of patients throughout the day. If I have 4 patients, 3 of which are ready for discharge, I cannot take a new PACU admission to help out the unit. A nurse who may have three heavy patients, one requiring a Rapid Response and eventual transfer to the unit, may have to take that patient, or it negatively impacts throughput and the patient has to sit and back up the PACU waiting until someone can admit them. That scenario may seem extreme, but it is something staff face every day, and if I am willing to take that extra patient to support my colleagues and support patient care, my hospital can be fined $25,000? That makes no sense. However, it is the reality of this bill. 4 patients in a Boston hospital at night, is a very different assignment from one of the community hospitals, yet they require the same exact staffing? That doesn't add up.
The general population of MA is being asked to vote on a bill without any knowledge of how healthcare works as whole. This is not to say lay people don't understand good care, they are our customers and they deserve the safest and best care possible and their input is invaluable. However, they do not know how to run a hospital, how it is budgeted, how we currently run staffing matrix, and what this bill means not only to their care but the state of Massachusetts. It has been estimated it will cost the state $1.3billion to become compliant with the thousands of new RN positions (most Boston hospitals only hire BSN level nurses, which will no longer be possible). It is an estimated $900million annually to maintain these new staffing ratios, without any revenue to the state, and more headaches and difficulty for the public to access care. No other field asks laypeople to make a decision on how they guide their business/care (think Medicine). It is bad policy-making for nurses to do the same; we all believe that highly trained nurses at the bedside, with an appropriate number of patients, benefits not only patients but the work/life balance of our staff. This bill is not the way to do it. We don't want hospitals to close, and patients to have to search for care. We want the best care possible for all of the residents of Massachusetts, and eventually, all patients in all states, as this will set a precedence for mandated ratios in all states in the future!