Debate over mandatory patient limits for Illinois nurses heats up

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WEEK) — The debate over legislation which would set a limit on the number of patients that can be assigned to a single nurse is getting heated up under the Capitol dome.

House Bill 3585 and Senate Bill 650 would mandate minimum nurse-to-patient ratios. The legislation is pushed by the National Nurses Union, which said nurses taking on too many patients is creating a “safety crisis.”

“Nurses who have too many patients are vulnerable to higher rates of on-the-job injuries and are more prone to make errors,” said Theresa Ivery, a registered nurse at Jackson Park Hospital in Chicago last month. “Our bill will make our hospitals safer for both patients and nurses.”

The legislation is modeled after a similar California law, which requires a ratio of one nurse for every five patients, or one nurse per every two patients in an intensive care unit. The Illinois legislation would also apply to long term acute-care hospitals and ambulatory surgery centers.

The Illinois Health and Hospital Association is lobbying against the implementation of mandatory nurse staffing, arguing the “one size fits all” approach to nurse staffing in the bill would harm many hospitals and health care providers, because mandatory limits for nurse patients loads would result in longer wait times, reduced patient services and higher operating costs at many hospitals.

“With the input of their nurses, hospitals must have flexibility to align and deploy their resources and workforce in the most appropriate ways to meet the unique, dynamic and diverse needs of their patients and communities,” said the IHA in a list of talking points released in opposition to the bills.

The hospital industry group said they consider nurse staffing ratios to be an unfunded mandate that will result in staffing shortages in other areas, such as support staff, transport, and phlebotomy. The hospital group said nurses would be forced to take on tech-level work as a result.

The Illinois Nursing Workforce Center projects a shortage of 21,000 nurses by 2020, with one-third of current RNs planning to retire in the next five years. 

However, the left-leaning Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign released a study Thursday suggesting that implementing mandatory staffing ratios for nurses, combined with increased unionization, could help address the state’s chronic nursing shortage.

“Obviously, when nurses are already stretched thin by understaffing and lower wages than their counterparts in other states, the potential for this type of widespread workplace abuse only adds another obstacle to the retention of qualified care providers,” said study co-author Jill Manzo.

The ILEPI/PMCR study shows average nurse income in Illinois lags 6 to 10 percent behind other states, ranking 22nd nationally overall.

“Hospitals that have implemented above-average nurse staffing levels have a 17% lower patient mortality rate,” said ILEPI Policy Director and study co-author Frank Manzo IV. “After California implemented safe patient limits for nurses, the likelihood of in-patient death, the time spent in intensive care units, and hospital readmission rates all fell as well.”

The bills are still in committee in the General Assembly.

Tim Shelley

Tim Shelley

Social Media & Digital Content Manager
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