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Hospital Employees Seek Relief From Understaffing

March 20, 2019

Nursing assistant Amanda Newman often ends her shifts at PeaceHealth’s Sacred Heart Medical Center in Springfield in tears after struggling to meet all of her patients needs each day because there’s not enough staff.

Newman and other nursing assistants have difficulty getting meals to all patients while they’re hot. Patients have also soiled themselves when there wasn’t enough staff to get them to the bathroom on time.

“I’m doing everything I can, and it’s still not enough,” Newman told legislators Tuesday. “Our patients deserve more. Our (nursing assistants) and nurses deserve more.”

Newman was among five health care workers from four hospitals who urged legislators this week to approve a bill that would require hospitals to add nursing assistants like Newman to hospital staffing committees that make staffing decisions for hospitals. They are currently dominated by registered nurses and nursing managers.

House Bill 2945 also would give the Oregon Health Authority the ability to impose $10,000 fines on hospitals that violate this requirement. The hope is to give nursing assistants and other staff members a greater voice on the committees to prevent understaffing. When that happens, supporters say, they become tired and overworked and have to make difficult decisions that can compromise the health of their patients.

“Adequate staffing is the cornerstone of quality care,” Meg Niemi, president of the Service Employees International Union’s local chapter, SEIU 49, said in a press release. The union crafted the bill. “At some hospitals, staffing levels are so tight that the safety of both patients and staff are at risk.”

Nursing assistants complained that short staffing has forced them to choose between following their hospitals’ policies or keeping patients safe. Obstetric technician Chandra Ferrell faced that decision while working at Samaritan Albany General Hospital. Hospital policy requires a one-to-one staff to patient ratio, meaning each staffer is responsible for watching one patient at all times. However, on Sunday, management also tasked her with watching an additional patient whose medication caused him to urinate every 15 minutes. Ferrell was forced to repeatedly leave her original patient behind to accompany the second patient to the restroom so that he would not fall.

“Having to make these decisions to keep my patients safe and (being) forced to knowingly go against hospital policy is simply unacceptable,” Ferrell said. “If something adverse would have happened to either patient during my watch, I would have been devastated, especially since it could have been avoided with adequate staffing.”

The problem has only gotten worse in recent years, as nursing assistants have to juggle more patients than ever before, they said. Anna Blackman, another Sacred Heart nursing assistant, said that when her career began 13 years ago, she typically cared for five or six patients in a day. Now, she might be forced to handle as many as 20.

“When I chose to become a (nursing assistant) I made a promise to myself that I would take care of patients the way I would expect others to take care of my family when they are in need,” Blackman said. “Our morals that we promised to uphold are being crushed by the system.”

Hospitals argued that lawmakers, hospitals and staff should work together to find a way to meet staff needs.

Andi Easton, vice president of government affairs for the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, complained that hospitals were left out of the process of crafting this bill. She argued they should be involved to create more effective policy. Easton also said the possible fines seemed excessive since the Oregon Health Authority has never penalized hospitals in the past for staffing violations.

In written testimony submitted to the committee, Chief Nursing Officer Judy Tatman of Providence Health & Services said the company was not involved in the legislation and would be more open to a discussion if they could be part of the negotiating process.

House Bill 2945 will be scheduled for a vote in the health care committee, at which point lawmakers will decide whether to send it to the House floor.

“When hospitals prioritize profits over patients, it’s not only patients who are put at risk,” said Felisa Hagins, SEIU political director. “Understaffing means workers may have to stretch themselves to the limit to compensate for gaps in coverage.”

Have a tip about health care or the Legislature? You can reach Alex Visser at [email protected].