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January 19, 2023

Nurses union seeks Mass. legislation to mandate patient-to-staff ratios

A group of people holding signs and police officers stand on a sidewalk in front of a large building. Photo | Grant Welker Members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association picket during the record-breaking strike against Saint Vincent's Hospital, which lasted more than 300 days in 2021 and 2022, which largely centered around nurse-to-patient staffing levels.

As part of its five-year effort to mandate patient-to-nurse ratios at hospitals, the Massachusetts Nurses Association labor union has teamed with members of the state legislature – including the representative from Leominster – to introduce new legislation, which they say is in response to a long-term healthcare access crisis in the state.

The legislation would rely on the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to hold public stakeholder hearings to establish the specific limits of patients assigned to a nurse, according to a Thursday release from the MNA. 

In 2018, the MNA pushed for a ballot initiative to require healthcare providers to limit the number of patients each nurse could be in charge of at one time. The measure was strongly opposed by the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, which represents hospitals in the state, and the measure was defeated by the voters 70%-30%.

The new legislation, entitled An Act Promoting Patient Safety and Equitable Access to Care, is sponsored by state Sen. Lydia Edwards (D-Boston), and state Rep. Natalie Higgins (D-Leominster). It differs from the 2018 ballot question in its approach to developing nurse-patient ratio limits because of the proposed process involving DPH, according to the release.

"I am proud to introduce legislation that will help address our nurse staffing and care quality crisis by directing the Department of Public Health to gather feedback and establish safe patient limits for all of our hospitals,” Higgins said in the press release.

Members of the MNA went on strike from their roles at Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester for 301 days in 2021 and 2022, with the main issue being patient-to-nurse staffing ratios. The MNA press release Thursday announcing the legislation said Saint Vincent is an example of high ratios endangering patients and driving nurses away from the profession.

Officials at Saint Vincent and the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association weren’t available for comment on Thursday.

“There is absolutely no question that limiting the number of patients a nurse cares for at one time is safer for patients and the only solution to the current nurse staffing crisis,” Katie Murphy, president of the MNA, said in the press release.

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