Merkley Introduces Bill to Make Hospitals Safer for both Nurses and Patients

WASHINGTON – Today, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley introduced the Registered Nurses Safe Staffing Act, which will help improve the quality of care and outcomes for patients through appropriate levels of staffing, reduction in medical errors, and increases in nurse retention. The bill will require Medicare-participating hospitals to create staffing plans and ensure an appropriate number of registered nurses are available to provide direct patient care during any given shift, based on key factors, such as the number of patients and the intensity of care needed.

“As the husband of a nurse, I know firsthand the many challenges nurses face and how critical their care is to patients,” said Merkley. “Safe staffing that enhances patient care, reduces medical errors, and bolsters nurse retention all at the same time would be a tremendous improvement to the delivery of high quality care.” 

Research shows that there is a direct link between the number of registered nurses on a shift and the quality of patient care.  A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that higher levels of nursing care correlate with better patient care and outcomes in hospitals.  Another study by the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organization found that nearly one-quarter of all unanticipated events that result in death, injury or permanent loss of function result from inadequate nurse staffing levels. 

At a time when the U.S. is projected to experience a shortage of registered nurses that is expected to increase as baby boomers age and the need for health care grows, this legislation will help improve retention of RNs and ensure that patients receive safe and sufficient care at hospitals. Specifically, the bill would step up protections for both nurses and patients by requiring hospitals to establish a hospital-wide staffing plan for nursing services. Plans would be required to include: an appropriate number of registered nurses for each unit on each shift, a floor for the ratio of direct care registered nurses to patients for each unit for each shift, and a staffing committee comprised of at least 55% direct-care nurses.

The bill would also place limits on the practice of “floating” nurses, ensuring that nurses that don’t have the education and experience in a particular specialty aren’t forced to work in that particular unit. The bill also provides whistle-blower protections for individuals who filed a complaint about threats to safe care.

A bipartisan companion bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) and Rep. David Joyce (R-OH) in April 2013.

To date, seven states, including Oregon, have passed similar legislation to ensure safe staffing by utilizing a hospital-wide safe staffing committee.