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More than 1,000 Nurses and Health Care Advocates Flood Massachusetts State House to Call for Vote on H.1282, A Bill To Set Minimum RN-to-Patient Ratios

More than 1,000 registered nurses, former patients and advocates for patient safety flooded the State House in Boston on May 11th, marking National Nurses Week with a demonstration calling for passage of legislation, H. 1282, that would set state minimum RN-to-patient ratios in all Massachusetts acute care hospitals.

Clad in aqua blue T-shirts, the sea of nurses overflowed historic Nurses’ Hall, with nurses lining staircases and the balconies surrounding the area of the State House named to honor nurses who served in the Civil War. The boisterous crowd rocked the halls of the State House with chants of "Our Patients Deserve a Vote," and "Safe Staffing Now," a message from those on the front-lines of the health care system that, in the words of MNA’s president Karen Higgins, "The time has come to protect patients and pass this legislation."

The event, which was hosted by the Coalition to Protect Massachusetts Patients, an alliance of 65 leading health care and consumer groups, was designed to move the bill out of the House Ways and Means Committee onto the floor of the House for a vote.

Among those speaking at the rally were former patients who detailed their experiences in understaffed hospital environments. Richard Ferri, a nurse practitioner and editor of two medical journals was one of those patients. He told of poor care he received for treatment of a collapsed lung and other ailments at three different hospitals. "These three hospitals had one thing in common, the care in each one was deplorable; and it was caused by my nurses having too many other patients to care for. It was so bad, after suffering a collapsed lung I found myself having to provide my own care, including my own suctioning, respiratory therapy and pain management, because I couldn’t count on it being done by my nurses; not because they were bad nurses, they were great nurses, they were just overwhelmed with too many patients," Ferri told the crowd.

Paula Zingarelli of Boston was on hand to present a letter she had written to her legislator about the issue. It told of her years as a medical assistant caring for patients in hospitals, and finding too many of them writhing in pain "because their nurse never got them their medicines on time." She also told of the care her mother received, being neglected for hours, causing Zingarelli to stay with her all night long during her stays to make sure she was safe. And finally, Zingarelli told of her own decision to hire around the clock private duty nurses, spending $3,000 out of her own money because she couldn’t trust the hospital where she stayed to provide the care she knew she would need. "No one should ever do what I had to do to make sure they are safe in a hospital," she stated.

And Isaac BenEzra, a former patient and president of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, spoke on behalf of the thousands of seniors his organization represents, who are fighting for passage of the bill. “We have been called the greatest generation, we have raised you all, we have built this country, and it is obscene that we are treated with such little respect and with such disdain by the hospital industry, who won’t provide us with the most basic care when we need it most. It is just obscene what the hospital industry is doing to seniors in our hospitals."

The legislation, which was filed by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, is co-sponsored by 102 out of 200 members of the Legislature. It would set minimum RN-to-patient ratios for all units and departments in Massachusetts hospitals as a condition of licensure by the Department of Public Health. The quality and safety of patient care in Massachusetts hospitals, according to a recent report by the DPH, has been deteriorating over the last seven years, with hospitals reporting a 76% increase in injuries, complications and harm to patients due to chronic understaffing.

A number of legislators, who spoke at the event, seemed to agree that the current crisis was so severe, it warranted immediate action.

Rep. Christine Canavan, RN (D-Brockton), lead sponsor of the bill, called the nurses in the crowd, "Gladiators in the fight for patient safety. We have to pass this bill and we have to fix this. Plan A is to get it passed now. Plan B is to keep fighting for our patients," she said.

"It’s not easy being a patient. It’s not easy being a nurse. We have to make sure we’re taking care of these people, don’t we?" said state Rep. Peter Koutoujian, a Waltham Democrat and Health Care committee co-chairman.

"Let me tell you what is really unjust," said state Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton. "When the insurance industry can get what they want, when the pharmaceutical industry can get what they want, it is outrageous that patients cannot get what they need and they deserve, and that’s quality health care. We need safe RN staffing and we need it now!"

At the end of the Rally, nurses and advocates spent time drafting hand-written letters to their legislators urging a vote on the bill and hand delivered those letters before leaving the building.

The next step is to keep up the pressure through letter writing, e-mailing, phone calling, personal visits and other outreach efforts to convince legislators to move this bill for a vote on the floor of the legislature.

Senator Pacheco has also drafted and filed an amendment containing the language of H. 1282 to be added to the Senate version of the State Budget, which is another way to pass this legislation. The Coalition to Protect Massachusetts Patients and the MNA is exploring every possible avenue for passing this legislation before the end of the legislative session on July 31.