Nurses rally for ratios

Registered Nurse Paula Helmick used to be afraid that if she took her lunch break someone would die.

Then, in January 2004, new staffing ratio laws took effect, requiring hospitals like hers—Enloe Medical Center—to have a certain number of nurses in each unit at all times.

“In the past, we’d just sit in the breezeway and eat our lunch,” said Helmick, who works in the Intensive Care Unit. Or nurses would forgo their breaks altogether.

But the law has also hamstrung hospitals, says the California Healthcare Association, which, disagreeing with the Department of Health Services’ interpretation of the law, sued the state to challenge the requirement that hospitals reassign patients to a substitute nurse when the primary nurse becomes unavailable.

“It really caught hospitals by surprise. We did not believe it was the intent of the Legislature,” said Enloe spokesperson Ann Prater. She said the law creates logistical and financial problems that will cost Enloe $1 million a year.

“Everyone agrees that the more nurses we can put at the bedsides, the better for our patients,” Prater said. But she said with the cost and a nurse shortage—something the California Nurses Association disputes—it’s difficult.

About a dozen Enloe nurses joined colleagues from around the state in Sacramento May 14 to protest the hospital industry’s attempt to block elements of the law. They rallied outside the courthouse during a judge’s hearing.

Charles Idelson, a CNA spokesman, said the industry’s approach is “a classic bait-and-switch.” If it succeeds in striking down the ratio rules, he said, it could open the gates to invalidate all other safety laws.

Prater said a more reasonable interpretation of the law would be to allow flexibility to allow the ratios, which vary by unit, to be met “on average, during the course of the day.”

RN Kathy Lundquist said the new law has given her peace of mind since Enloe hired someone just to relieve nurses for breaks during the course of a shift. “I feel so relieved that I can go on my break and not worry about my patients,” she said.

Helmick said that getting together with other members of the CNA union served an additional purpose. “It’s always a rejuvenating experience,” she said. “You think that you’re the only people having those kinds of problems. It’s a great feeling to know you’re not alone.”

The California Healthcare Association, of which Enloe is a member, called the rally a "publicity stunt" and "membership drive tactic."