Our health care system is a gathering catastrophe | Opinion - Health Professionals & Allied Employees

Our health care system is a gathering catastrophe | Opinion

Taken from NJ.com

By Debbie White, HPAE President

March 16, 2023

Understaffing is driving our health care system to the brink of collapse. That is why the Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE,) New Jersey’s largest union of healthcare workers, is pushing the state legislature to pass NJ-S304 a law in Trenton this year mandating enforceable staffing ratios.

The problem is clear. Frontline health care workers continue to migrate out of bedside nursing at an alarming rate because of untenable working conditions. Driven in large part by working shorthanded, this unsafe work environment has led to tremendous burnout in the profession as many more leave health care due to stress. And when health care workers suffer — the unavoidable result is that patient care suffers.

If we do not come up with multifaceted programs to solve this issue, including a focus on both recruitment and retention, including safe staffing legislation, there will be dire consequences on the delivery of care for all New Jerseyans.

We must also provide incentives to lure back nurses who have left the field and to retain nurses who remain at the bedside. We must stop the current migration out of the field.

We have long championed staffing legislation to improve staffing at health care facilities. But lobbyists for corporations that own hospitals – both profit and non-profit – that are laser-focused on their profits, have successfully beaten back legislative solutions to the issue.

Through our contracts with employers, HPAE has tried to solve some of the most vexing problems locally. For instance, HPAE Local 5058 members at Jersey Shore University Medical Center surveyed members in 2022 who were frustrated with, among other things, the hospital’s inability to staff adequately and repair the other problems understaffing created.

These local leaders then brought the survey results to their employer at the bargaining table, as well as many members to testify at bargaining to the severity of understaffing.

Armed with proposals to address issues around safety, recruitment, and retention, Local 5058 prevailed in gains toward better staffing within their hospital.

In 2022, HPAE released the results of a multi-phase statewide survey that we undertook to better understand hospital nurses’ experiences, challenges, and needs in these unprecedented times.

We confirmed that overworked and poorly compensated New Jersey nurses are leaving the profession in droves, saying hospital safety is on the decline. Some of the staggering findings in this statewide survey on the staffing crisis include:

  • Nearly a third of nurses have left the bedside (hospitals) in the past three years.
  • Of those nurses that remain at the bedside, 72% have considered leaving recently.
  • Newer nurses are the most likely to consider leaving the bedside (95% of those with five years of experience or less).
  • The number one reason nurses are leaving hospitals is poor staffing.
  • The second is related to the first: burnout and stress.

This should be a wake-up call not just to these health care corporations but to our legislators and regulators. Deep into the third year of a global pandemic that has shaken and changed every corner of our society, we must do things differently.

The uncomfortable truth is that hospitals are now simply health care corporations with only one goal: profits. For years, staffing has been a line item in a budget, cut to its lowest number to maximize those profits.

Because of this, hospitals were already short-staffed with the onset of the pandemic. The pandemic itself only exacerbated a crisis that began with budget decisions of down-staffing made by these hospital corporations.

It may be understandable why corporations and their lobbyists would resist anything that adds to their costs and reduces their profits. But what is truly incomprehensible is why our legislators would go along with the shortsighted focus on profits and fail to see the urgency of solving a crisis with the very lives of patients at risk.

The truth is that staffing is an asset with patient outcomes improving dramatically with more nurses and other health care workers. Research by Linda Aiken, Matthew McHugh, and others is clear: in places where staffing is better, patients benefit. California, the only state with enforceable staffing ratios, bears this out.

A 2010 study from NIH showed that “Hospital nurse staffing ratios mandated in California are associated with lower mortality and nurse outcomes, predictive of better nurse retention in California.” What more proof do we need?

Our health care system is in crisis as we continue to lose these dedicated health care heroes to burnout and stress. Patients will suffer. We must stop the bleeding. The answer must start with an enforceable safe staffing law in New Jersey and nationally.

Debbie White is a registered nurse and president of HPAE.

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