Pennsylvania pushing for nurse-to-patient ratio laws

Because Pennsylvania has not yet passed a state budget, legislative leaders are pushing many bills to the side. But advocates of SB 742, the Pennsylvania Hospital Patient Protection Act of 2009, are still pressing for hearings before September.

SB 742 would guarantee a minimum safe-staffing ratio of RNs per patient in the Pennsylvania's hospitals, similar to a law currently in place in California since January 1, 2004, said Patricia Eakin, RN, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, which is one of the bill's sponsors.

The bill was introduced by Daylin Leach (D – Delaware/Montgomery) and is currently in the Public Health & Welfare Committee. Eakin said it complements the National Nursing Shortage Reform and Patient Advocacy Act (S 1031), which was introduced in Congress by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D - Calif.) and seeks to standardize nurse-to-patient ratio across states.

A similar bill, HB 147, sponsored by Tim Solobay (D – Washington) is currently in the House Committee on Health and Human Services. Both House and Senate bills are "extremely important to us as professionals to provide some safeguards for our patients," said Eakin.

Many state legislators have co-sponsored SB 742 and have committed to vote for it, Eakin said. Not surprisingly, hospitals and their associations are opposed to the bills.

"The only way to correct the nursing problem is to address the unsafe staffing that leads to nurses leaving the profession because of burnout," Eakin said. "We are the primary care givers at the bedside 24/7."

Doctors depend upon nurses to monitor and assess patient conditions, providing a full picture versus a snapshot, Eakin said. "If you don't have time to think and protect patients, then people die," she said.

Eakin, who is an RN at Temple University Hospital Emergency Department, points to the success of the California law, which was sponsored by the California Nurses Association, mandating a nursing ratio.

Since the California law went into effect, vacancy and turnover rates have stabilized, according to a March 2008 article in the American Journal of Nursing. The number of RNs with active licenses increased from 246,058 to 306,140 between June 30, 1999 and December 2005, according to the California Board of Registered Nursing.

According to Eakin, California hospitals have not had to do many layoffs in order to comply with the law.

Given that Pennsylvania has a Republican-controlled state Senate, a Democrat-controlled state House and a Democrat in the Governor's office, the dickering over the bill should be quite interesting, Eakin said.