News & Events

Patient advocates continue fight for safe RN staffing at State House hearing

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
January/February 2010 Edition

By Riley Ohlson
Associate Director, Legislative Division

For more than a decade, bedside nurses in Massachusetts have been working to stop the dangerous practice of RN understaffing, because they have seen firsthand how patients are being harmed by current hospital staffing practices. Seniors, consumer advocates, community activists and members of the labor movement have watched care deteriorate over the years because nurses are being forced to care for too many patients at once. They have joined the Coalition to Protect Massachusetts Patients to support bedside nurses in their struggle to improve the quality of care for all patients. On Nov. 3, Coalition members joined with registered nurses to testify before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health.

John McCormack, co-chair of the Coalition to Protect Massachusetts Patients and a tireless patient safety advocate since the needless death of his daughter in a Massachusetts hospital, spoke “for all the people who cannot speak for themselves—the thousands of people who die every year in Massachusetts due to preventable medical errors.” McCormack passionately told the tragic story of how unsafe care affected him and his family and how dedicated he is “to do all [he] can to not let this happen to anyone else.”

Joining McCormack was Angelena DeLima, a member of the Coalition for Social Justice who chose to testify because she is personally invested in this issue. “My passion for this issue and this cause is driven by my own personal experience in watching my beloved grandmother suffer and pass away a few years ago at Charlton Hospital,” DeLima explained to the committee. “I watched day after day, as my grandma’s nurses struggled to provide the care she needed and deserved. On many occasions we would talk to the nurses and they would tell us, sincerely, that they were doing the best that they could, but they had 10 patients, and there were five patient alarms going off at one time.”

John Bennett, president of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, recounted his own experience of nurse understaffing when his wife was in the hospital. He described how “the alarm on the monitor would go off and nobody would come, and we pressed the call button for nurses and still nobody would come. So I rushed out to the hallway and looked up and down the hallway in that ward, and every light in the ward would be on…In talking to the nurses I found out that the real problem was that they had too many patients to take care of and couldn’t devote the time that they needed to any single patient.” As the president of an organization representing over 2,500 seniors, Bennett explained that seniors “find this suffering from lack of nursing care unacceptable.”

Jon Weissman, executive director of Western Mass Jobs with Justice, reminded legislators “that the most important stakeholders in the debate over hospital understaffing are not the nurses, it’s the millions of residents who depend on our state’s hospitals for their health and well being when they are most vulnerable.” Working every day with a wide range of community and labor organizations, Weissman speaks with those people who are directly affected by the hospital industry’s practice of chronic understaffing. Weissman added that he himself was affected by this when he developed a hospital-acquired infection after undergoing surgery.

Adding to the litany of concerned coalition members were the voices of Beth Piknick, RN, and Donna Kelly-Williams, RN. Piknick, reflecting on her experience as an RN at Cape Cod Hospital and as president of the MNA for the past four years, expressed her regret that this issue remains unresolved. She called attention to the fact that “over the past year, we have seen hospitals, after claiming for years that there just weren’t enough nurses to safely staff their facilities, begin to lay off nurses,” and lamented that “hospitals have stretched their nursing staffs even thinner.”

Newly elected MNA president Donna Kelly-Williams, who has been a bedside nurse at Cambridge Health Alliance for the last 35 years, spoke on behalf of “23,000 very frustrated front-line, bedside nurses.” She talked about her skepticism of the hospital industry’s claim that they cannot afford this critical patient safety measure. “The hospital executives who testify before you on this bill will, no doubt, claim that now is not the time to require safe staffing, that the economy is too weak, and their finances too precarious … just a few years ago, the industry was posting in excess of a billion dollars in surpluses every year. I can’t help but observe that even when times were flush, they somehow claimed that they couldn’t afford to staff safely.”

“What hospitals truly cannot afford to do,” said Kelly-Williams, “is to continue these unsafe staffing practices. Peer reviewed research details the connection between safe RN staffing and complications like pressure ulcers, deep vein thrombosis, urinary tract infections and hospital-acquired pneumonia. Pressure ulcers cost over $43,000 to treat per patient. urinary tract infections—common particularly in older patients—cost $44,000. Hospital-acquired pneumonia adds at least $30,000 to a hospital bill. These poor staffing practices are part of what’s driving the health care inflation that we are all struggling with.”

A number of legislators also spoke in favor of the Patient Safety Act, sponsored by Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton) and Rep. Christine Canavan, (D-Brockton), during the hearing. These included Senator Pacheco, Reps. Patricia Haddad (D-Somerset), Anne Gobi (D-Spencer), Jennifer Callahan, RN (D-Sutton), Geraldo Alicea (D-Charlton), Marty Walsh (D-Boston) and Steve D’Amico (D-Seekonk). Dozens of additional legislators submitted written testimony in support.

The bill now awaits action from the public health committee.

To become involved in our campaign for safe RN staffing please contact Riley Ohlson, MNA political organizer, at 781.830.5740 or