In Brief

Advocates urge lawmakers to mandate minimum nurse staffing at hospitals

By: - March 21, 2023 7:14 am

Nurses, union leaders, and two legislators gathered on the Statehouse steps in Trenton on March 20, 2023, to urge lawmakers to act on a stalled bill that would mandate minimum patient-to-nurse ratios in certain medical facilities. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

About 15 nurses, health union leaders, and legislators held a news conference on the steps of the Statehouse Monday to urge lawmakers to act on a long-stalled bill that would mandate a minimum patient-to-nurse ratio in certain state medical facilities.

A crippling nursing shortage predated the pandemic but worsened in recent years, as burnout drove many into early retirement — and hospital owners placed profits over patients, the bill’s supporters said.

“We need to stop the bleed,” said registered nurse Debbie White, president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees, the state’s largest union of health care workers. “We need to stop nurses from migrating out of the profession. The way to do this is to legislate enforceable staffing standards. Hospitals will never do this unless they’re mandated by law.”

Hospitals with lower patient-to-nurse ratios report lower mortality; fewer admissions, readmissions, and ICU admissions; shorter stays; fewer patient infections and injuries; greater patient satisfaction; and less nurse burnout, White said.

Lawmakers in California and countries like Australia, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland have passed similar legislation.

The New Jersey bill, first introduced in January 2022, would cover state general and psychiatric hospitals, ambulatory surgical facilities, and behavioral health developmental centers.

The minimum patient-to-nurse ratios would depend on location, with one nurse for every five patients in a behavioral health, psychiatric, or medical/surgical unit, and one nurse for every patient under anesthesia in an operating room.

Hospitals and facilities “in financial distress,” as determined by the state health commissioner, would be exempted until their finances straighten out.

The state Department of Health would be tasked with enforcing the required staffing ratios through periodic inspections. Staff or the general public could report suspected scofflaws to the state for investigation.

Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) and Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez (D-Hudson), two of the bill’s prime sponsors, attended the news conference to chime in too.

“Our health care workers have been on the front lines of an unprecedented global pandemic,” Greenstein said. “Measures like this safe staffing bill are needed to improve working conditions at our hospitals, to ensure that staff is well-equipped to provide exceptional patient care, and ultimately, to save lives.”

Advocates are planning to rally at the Statehouse on May 11 to drum up more support for the bill.

“It is time for Trenton lawmakers to take action to set safe staffing levels in every hospital in New Jersey,” said Sheryl Mount, a registered nurse at Virtua Memorial Hospital in Mount Holly and president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees Local 5105. “It is a crisis.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.