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On February 15, 2018, the newest safe nurse staffing bill was introduced to the U.S. Congress. The bill (H.R.5052 and S.2446) has bipartisan support, and is championed by Reps. David Joyce (R-OH), Suzan DelBene (D-WA), Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), and Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), as well as Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR).

In the past, several safe staffing bills have been presented in previous Congresses but have failed to pass committee. This bill, the Safe Staffing for Nurse and Patient Safety Act of 2018, is slightly different than previous iterations. Under this staffing legislation, Medicare-participating hospitals would be required to form committees that would create and implement unit specific, nurse-to-patient ratio staffing plans. At least half of each committee must comprise direct care nurses.

“It is so important for nurses on the front lines to be able to have a say in what they believe is safe staffing,” says Pamela F. Cipriano, PhD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN, the president of the American Nurses Association (ANA). “This bill benefits bedside nurses by giving them decision-making power, control, and the ability to influence the delivery of safe care,” Cipriano continues.

A committee made of staff nurses—who would make staffing decisions that directly affect their own units—is so important because it is nurses who can best assess patient needs and the resources required to provide safe patient care. Staffing committees would be able to address the unique needs of specific units and patient populations by involving specialty nurses in the decisions, and would have the ability to modify the hospital safety plans as needed.

Overwhelmingly, research supports adequate nurse staffing. Over the last several decades, literature has demonstrated a decrease in patient morbidity and mortality and an increase in patient safety when units are well staffed. “With adequate amounts of staffing we see mortality go down and patient complications can be prevented or diminished,” Cipriano says. “It is important for nurses to have sufficient resources to care for patients, because nurses experience moral distress when they cannot provide the care they know a patient needs.”

Short-changing patients also contributes to nurse burnout, and low nursing retention is expensive. Additionally, adequate nurse staffing leads to reduced health care costs, as a result of fewer hospital readmissions, hospital-acquired infections, medical errors, and other significant measurable patient outcomes. “Patients deserve to have the right care,” Cipriano says. “They need to be kept safe, and the best way to prevent problems and complications is to have the right nurse staffing.”

Is there hope that this bill will pass, when so many previous iterations have not? “It may be difficult to pass the legislation, even this time around,” Cipriano admits. “But the most important impact is that every time we have an opportunity to have this legislation discussed, it’s another opportunity to educate another decision maker. Whether it is congresspeople, their staff, or other leaders in their communities, it gives us the opportunity to continue to reinforce why it is so important to have the right nursing care.”

It is ethically challenging when a nurse is asked to take staffing assignments that do not feel safe. On many units, nurses are expected to care for several acute and critically ill patients at a time, and are given patient loads that stretch them far beyond their reasonable care delivery capabilities. What should a nurse do when faced with an unsafe assignment? Nurses should raise immediate concerns by following the chain of command, and talking with immediate supervisors to express that they believe the situation is unsafe. “The first obligation is to make sure that no patient is left uncared for,” Cipriano says. “Short term, use the chain of command and do everything you can within in your power to make sure that you’re providing at least the minimum care the patient needs.” Longer-term, if nurses truly believe that their organization is not supporting the right staffing ratios, the ANA encourages an active dialogue with leadership, such as a conversation with responsible nursing leaders, quality directors, or patient care committees or councils to focus attention to the issue.

“Nursing care is like a medication,” Cipriano says. “You wouldn’t withhold a life-saving medication, so why would you withhold the right amount or right dose of nursing care?”

If you are passionate about safe staffing laws, consider calling or writing your congressperson and encourage them to support the Safe Staffing for Nurse and Patient Safety Act of 2018.

Laura Kinsella

Laura Kinsella, BSN, RN, CEN, is an emergency room nurse in Washington, DC.

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