Photo above: Senate President Steve Sweeney and HPAE President Ann Twomey

A labor union effort launched yesterday to increase hospital-staffing levels and ratchet up state oversight of hospitals picked up quick support from top Democratic legislative leaders.

The Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE) union wants the state to update hospital staffing levels last revised in 1987,to regularly inspect all healthcare facilities, and to vigorously enforce laws meant to ensure safe patient care.

A petition asking for these changes, as well as amendments to the state’s patient bill of rights to add the right to safe staffing, was signed by Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem), Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Bergen and Hudson) and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. They all spoke at the HPAE’s bargaining and leadership conference held yesterday at Forsgate Country Club in Monroe.

The HPAE is calling on the state, through both new legislation and Department of Health regulations, to establish new staffing requirements based on studies that show patient safety improves when staffing levels for nurses increase.

Sweeney spoke with passion on the issue, emphasizing that nurses have been essential in helping his father recover from a stroke he had last month.

“For what you do, we have an obligation and a commitment to ensure that staffing levels are what they need to be,” Sweeney told an audience of roughly 150 union leaders and members.

HPAE President Ann Twomey recognized Sweeney for the central role he played in helping to keep maternity services and collective bargaining rights for nurses at Memorial Hospital of Salem County, where the union has been in a stand off with for-profit hospital owner Community Health Systems.

The HPAE has been raising alarms about the increasing number of for-profit hospitals in New Jersey , saying that the state must hold the new owners accountable for maintaining standards and fair treatment of workers.

Weinberg said she has been concerned about the impact of for-profit hospitals ever since the Bergen Regional Medical Center became the state’s first hospital operated by a for-profit company in 1998.

Weinberg noted that the Legislature recently passed a bill that requires state health officials to study whether to toughen financial reporting standards for hospitals. She would like for-profits to provide the same public information as nonprofits.

“I will keep the commissioner of health’s feet to the fire as we watch that study,” Weinberg said. She also said she would maintain her focus on improving healthcare, even as she co-chairs the Assembly investigation of the Bridgegate scandal.

“Bridgegate is a little bit of a pastime for me — healthcare is still what I’m most interested in,” Weinberg said.

The union also received support for its campaign from the second-highest labor leader in the country, AFL-CIO Secretary and Treasurer Elizabeth Shuler. Shuler predicted that the respect people have for healthcare workers will generate public support for the local union’s efforts. .

“You have instant trust and credibility,” Shuler said.

Shuler recognized Fulop for his support of Jersey City becoming the state’s first municipality to require that workers receive paid sick leave.

Fulop, who acknowledged the HPAE’s early support of his campaign for mayor, pointed to studies that link increased staffing levels for nurses to fewer patient deaths.

Prieto said for-profit hospitals don’t have the same commitment as nonprofits to maintaining safety levels. Sen. Robert M. Gordon (D-Bergen and Passaic) proposed a series of steps to hold for-profit hospitals more accountable.

“It’s as if the Department (of Health) looks in the other direction,” when for-profit hospitals violate state requirements, Gordon said.

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