Sen. Kevin Van De Wege is pictured during Senate deliberations before voting on a hospital staffing bill. (Paul Gottlieb/For Peninsula Daily News)

Sen. Kevin Van De Wege is pictured during Senate deliberations before voting on a hospital staffing bill. (Paul Gottlieb/For Peninsula Daily News)

Peninsula hospitals exempt from bill

Staffing legislation that passed Senate opposed by district’s senator

By Paul Gottlieb

Special to Peninsula Daily News

OLYMPIA — Hospital beds in rural Washington will go untouched by mandatory state reporting requirements for nurse staffing that will apply to larger, more urban hospitals, according to legislation cobbled together by traditional foes — labor unions and a hospital trade group — which advanced this week to the House.

The exempt facilities include Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles, Forks Community Hospital and Jefferson Healthcare hospital in Port Townsend.

The agreement formed the basis of the bill, E2SSB 5236, which the Senate approved 35-13 this week, with 24th District Sen. Kevin Van De Wege the lone Democratic to vote no.

It will have its first public hearing Wednesday before the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee. The session will be broadcast live online at tvw.org.

The pact broke a logjam that blocked passage of nurse staffing legislation in 2022.

It had called for nurse-patient ratios to ease the workplace strain of a beleaguered nursing workforce, a plan vigorously opposed by hospital officials who said that new staff were unavailable and health service cuts would ensue.

This year, the Legislature has an agreement in hand brokered by 2022 opponents, including the Service Employees International Union and Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA).

Under state law, hospitals are required to have nurse staffing committees comprised evenly of nurses and hospital administrative staff that set patient-care-unit assignments for nurses.

Under the staffing bill, hospitals that are critical access or sole community hospitals, or have fewer than 25 beds, are not subject to compliance reporting requirements for those staffing plans.

For larger hospitals, the state Department of Labor and Industries can impose fines if hospitals comply with less than 80 percent of the nurse staffing guidelines in a month.

Rural hospitals serve more than 70 percent of the state’s area and 15 percent of the population, according to WSHA.

The exempt facilities house about 1,500 beds in smaller hospitals in Washington, according to WSHA spokesperson Chelene Whiteaker on Thursday.

They include 67-bed Olympic Medical Center, a sole community hospital; Forks Community Hospital, which has 17 acute, swing bed and observation rooms, according to the hospital website; and 25-bed Jefferson Healthcare hospital in Port Townsend.

The Forks and Port Townsend hospitals are among 39 critical access hospitals in Washington state.

“The reason I voted no was because those critical access and sole community hospitals are exempt,” Van De Wege said.

He said he opposed the ratio-based bill in 2022, which unions supported while claiming hospital administrators had too much leeway to not follow their own staffing plans.

“Rural hospitals should follow their staffing guidelines and what their staffing committees produce,” said Van De Wege, a member of the Health and Long Term Care Committee.

“The health care workers at those hospitals work just as hard as everyone else. Larger hospitals have a lot more tools available to them. It’s hard if not harder in some situations because they don’t necessarily have the depth to cover all the emergencies they encounter,” he continued.

Enforcement of staffing committee guidelines at smaller hospitals will rely more on staff to make formal complaints at their hospitals instead of relying on a state agency’s purview under compliance reporting.

According to the staffing bill, nurses, licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants can file complaints with hospital staffing committees, can file complaints with hospital staffing committees, which would determine if the complaint is valid, Whiteaker said.

“The biggest change could be if you’re found … not in compliance with your shift-to-shift adjustments or you have variations in your staffing plan, the hospital will have to come up with a corrective plan of action of how to fix that, and if they don’t follow it, then the Department of Labor and Industries can fine the hospital,” she said.

“That’s the biggest change you’ll see on the ground, and that applies to all hospitals.”

Although some hospitals are exempt from the staffing plan reporting, all hospitals would have to provide employees with scheduled, uninterrupted meal and rest periods, except during emergencies, with the hospital maintaining records of missed meals and rest periods and providing quarterly reports to the Department of Labor and Industries.

If more than 20 percent of meals and rest periods are missed at critical access hospitals with up to 25 beds, they can be fined $5,000 beginning July 1, 2026. Hospitals with 26-99 beds can be fined $10,000.

Hospital CEOs at Jefferson Healthcare and Olympic Medical Center praised the bill.

Darryl Wolfe, OMC’s chief executive, said the 80-percent threshold for staffing plan compliance that larger hospitals would have to follow is already being met by OMC.

“Oh yeah, yes,” he said emphatically. “We adhere to those really closely. The only time we deviate is when there is a surge or high capacity situation.

“The big compromise was around nurse ratios. That was really going to hurt.”

Wolfe said OMC is in better shape operationally than larger hospitals along the Interstate 5 corridor, which absorb trauma and acute-care patients OMC cannot treat, and must deal with lines of patients stretching outside emergency room doors.

“It’s a tough situation over there,” he said. “It’s more of a capacity situation.”

Jefferson Healthcare spokesperson Amy Yaley said CEO Mike Glenn was unavailable this week to discuss the impact of the legislation on the hospital’s operations.

“Jefferson Healthcare supports the compromise that was reached by WSHA and the unions as it mirrors our current process and keeps the heart of the work related to staffing in individual hospitals that know their community’s and patient needs best,” he said in a prepared statement.

“A flexible staffing process lets us quickly adjust to patient needs, nurse expertise and experience, sick or family leave for employees, and daily patient census changes.”

Heidi Anderson, the CEO at Forks Community Hospital, who testified before the state Legislature against nurse-patient ratios, did not respond to requests for comment on the new legislation.

The Washington State Nurses Association, SEIU [Service Employees International Union] Healthcare 1199NW, UFCW [United Food and Commercial Workers International Union] 3000 worked with the Hospital Association in hammering out the compromise, Whiteaker said.

Reps. Steve Tharinger of Port Townsend and Mike Chapman of Port Angels — boht 24th District legislators — had positive reactions to the staffing bill.

“It sounds like they have a carefully crafted bill,” Chapman said. “At first glance, I’m supportive. This is a bill we’ve been working on for a couple of years, and it sounds to me like we’’ve gotten to a good spot.”

Tharinger, a member of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee, said he did not believe that 24th District hospitals were taking advantage of staffing committees.

The House is not likely to make major changes in the bill, he said.

“It’s a pretty delicate agreement,” Tharinger added.

SEIU spokesperson Jack Sorensen said in an email that compliance reporting for rural hospitals will be revisited by an advisory committee that must meet no earlier than July 1, 2029 to discuss compliance reporting as it relates to rural hospitals like those in the 24th District.

_______

Legislative Reporter Paul Gottlieb, a former senior reporter at Peninsula Daily News, can be reached at cpaulgottlieb@gmail.com.

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