SCHENECTADY — The statewide union for nurses is pressing as hard as ever for one of its top priorities — minimum staffing requirements — and calling out Schenectady County’s only general-service hospital in the process.
The New York State Nurses Association on Thursday said Ellis Hospital nurses filed 293 complaints to hospital management in 2019 and 2020 about understaffing in critical care units, with a total of 1,116 signatures appearing on the complaints.
It’s an issue that stretches across that state and beyond. In the same two-year period, NYSNA said, 26,219 such complaints were signed statewide by nurses 97,715 times.
The union, which would gain membership through the measure, frames the issue as one of quality of care — fewer nurses caring for more patients means less time and attention for each patient.
The hospital industry, which would have to budget more for nurses salaries, says mandates staffing ratios are the wrong solution.
Ellis Hospital parent Ellis Medicine in a prepared statement said Thursday that the hospital isn’t always short-staffed and is continually working to prevent understaffing.
It said: “Ellis Medicine remains fully focused on doing all we can to protect our patients and our healthcare team by ensuring we have adequate staffing in every area and during every shift.
“We continue to employ multiple tools at our disposal to ensure safe staffing levels, and to counterbalance the nationwide nursing shortage, filling every position we can with Ellis-employed nurses; hiring agency nurses to fill the gap; and hiring the talented students graduating from Ellis’ school of nursing — alongside a robust nurse-recruiting program.
“Staffing is ever-changing and not a constant, based on a variety of factors (staff quarantines during a pandemic among them). At the present moment, the Ellis Medicine nursing team is overstaffed and we are canceling the shifts of agency nurses as a result.”
It deferred the larger-picture question of state-mandated minimum staffing requirements to HANYS, an industry association for hospitals and other healthcare facilities.
HANYS said: “The Healthcare Association of New York state remains opposed to statewide government-mandated nurse staffing ratios, which do not factor in the realities of the available healthcare workforce, costs and the critical need for flexibility during healthcare crises like COVID-19. However, supporting the healthcare workforce is a top priority of HANYS and every hospital, nursing home and health system. We’re committed to working with state government and all healthcare workers as we pursue our common goal: ensuring that the highest quality care is accessible and affordable to all New Yorkers.”
NYSNA feels encouraged that this might finally be the year they see minimum staffing rules enacted statewide. Nursing home regulations approved as part of the 2021-2022 budget passed this week direct that nursing home owners spend at least 40% of revenue on staffing; the reforms stop short of specifying staff-to-resident ratios, but NYSNA believes there is momentum for that, too.
“If it’s going to happen, this is our year,” said registered nurse Denise D’Avella of Albany, a longtime Ellis Hospital employee and a member of the NYSNA executive committee for the hospital.
The general public has gained so much understanding of the stress and sacrifice experienced by overworked caregivers in the last year that there is greater popular support for the measure, she said.
D’Avella was a critical care nurse at Ellis for 21 years but recently switched to the cardiac catheterization lab. She recalls clearly the night she decided to leave the intensive care unit.
“All the nurses in ICU were tripled — we all had three patients — and we had an empty bed,” she said.
She asked the nursing supervisor if they’d admit another patient with all nurses already monitoring three critical patients. The supervisor said if a patient needed to be in the ICU, he or she would be admitted, someone would have to care for a fourth patient.
“To say that it’s a daunting task to have some of these nurse-to-patient ratios is an understatement,” D’Avella said.
Nurses on understaffed units still perform the physical act of medical care, albeit at a faster pace, she said. What falls by the wayside is the emotional support and compassion that is part of their profession, especially if patients can’t have visitors, she said.
“A lot of it is the nice and considerate things you want to do, that you know you’d want your loved ones to receive,” she said.