CT legislature to tackle nurses, other health care professionals spread too thin, ‘This is a crisis…rapidly moving toward a disaster’

CT legislature to tackle nurses, other health care professionals spread too thin, ‘This is a crisis…rapidly moving toward a disaster’

Connecticut state lawmakers are reviving a push for legislation this session that limits the number of patients overseen by nurses and other health care professionals and discourages mandatory overtime, both threatening, they say, the quality of patient care in hospitals.

Similar legislation was sought prior to the pandemic, but a national shortage of health care professionals, particularly nurses, has deepened in the aftermath of COVID-19. That has forced some out of health care and pushed others to the point of exhaustion, legislators, union leaders and health care workers, union leaders said Monday.

“Before the pandemic, we were stressed in our health care system,” said Sen. M. Saud Anwar, a pulmonologist and co-chair of the legislature’s joint committee on public health, said. But in the aftermath of COVID-19,“This is a crisis, but it is rapidly moving toward a disaster. And the disaster is preventable.”

In a press conference at the legislative office building, Anwar said health care workers — touted as heroes during the pandemic — are burned out and 1-in-5 nationally have left the profession. On top of that, the 1-in-3 that is left behind is thinking about leaving bedside health care.

Randi Weingarten, national president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents doctors and tens of thousands of nurses, said she couldn’t emphasize enough the exhaustion, the brokenness and the “moral injury and hazard” that nurses and other health care workers feel “all the time.”

“I am here today to say help us,” Weingarten said, her voice rising into a scream. “If you help us, we will be able to help patients more. People who go into health care want to make a difference in the lives of others. Help us do it. Don’t let us deal with the dangerous conditions that are getting worse.”

Dangerous workplace conditions arise from physical assaults on nurses — spitting, hitting and kicking — by distress patients, Weingarten said.

Weingarten blamed large health systems, built in acquisitions of hospitals, of placing profits over patient care.

Sheri Dayton, a nurse and union president at Backus Hospital in Norwich said she has seen nurses responsible for 4-5 patients rising to eight on a shift.

“I just want you to do the math, and look at the clock,” Dayton said. “Studies have shown that if a nurse can get in that room once an hour, it will decrease the fall risk, it will decrease infections, it will increase good skin care so they don’t get pressure ulcers. It will make it so that their risk of dying in a hospital is much less.”

On average, Dayton said she spends 10-15 minutes in a visit to a patient’s room.

“If I have eight patients, am I going to see them every hour?” Dayton said. “There’s just no way.”

The Connecticut Hospital Association , in a statement issued after the press conference, said legislation requiring certain nurse-to-patient ratios will not help solve the problem.

“A focus on government mandated nurse staffing ratios will stall the work we need to get done,” Jennifer Jackson, the association’s chief executive, said. “In fact, staffing ratios would exacerbate the problem, causing delays in care and raising costs with corporate nurse staffing agencies as the likely beneficiaries.”

Instead, the state should focus on how to build a strong health care workforce, including educating, training and retaining more health care professionals in Connecticut.

US Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., stopped by Monday’s press conference to say the issue is a priority at the federal level as well, and he supports legislation that will be introduced in the US Congress. The bills would focus on staffing levels and workplace safety, addressing the physical assaults.

“This isn’t about higher pay, although nurses need and deserve higher pay,” Blumenthal said. “It isn’t about comfort or convenience. It’s about fundamental health for people in Connecticut. You forget how much you need a nurse until you need a nurse. Until your vital signs are going south. Until you’re lying in agony on the hospital bed and you need the pain medication.”

Blumenthal said it would be essential to legislation — whether at the state or federal level — to have protections for whistleblowers and a structural framework for enforcement.

Blumenthal acknowledged that the legislation would face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

“But I can tell you this, and I am certain of it, Connecticut can help lead the way,” Blumenthal said.

Kenneth R. Gosselin can be reached at [email protected].