PORT ANGELES — A survival-of-the-fittest scenario faces pending bills this week in the first key deadline of the 60-day state legislative session.
They include a proposal that sets mandatory staff levels for nursing positions that hospitals say they cannot fill and which they contend could lead to service cuts — and which nurses say is vital for addressing those shortages.
House Bill 1868 and its Senate companion, SB 5751, are proceeding with hundreds of other bills to their Thursday cutoff point.
The bill deadline for House fiscal committees and the Senate Ways and Means and Transportation committees is Feb. 7.
They must survive committee review and proceed to the floor or die on the vine of legislative intentions.
Pending legislation and summary reports are at leg.wa.gov.
The 24th District’s three legislators — Democrats Steve Tharinger of Port Townsend, Kevin Van De Wege of Sequim and Mike Chapman of Port Angeles — weighed in Thursday and Friday on pending legislation as the third week of the nine-week session drew to a close.
HB 1725, intended to aid the search of missing indigenous persons, was passed unanimously Friday by the House and will proceed to the Senate.
It directs the State Patrol to establish a database and telephone hotline for sharing information with law enforcement and other agencies to find missing children and endangered persons.
The Makah, Quileute, Lower Elwha Klallam, Jamestown S’Klallam, Hoh and Quinault tribes are in the 24th Legislative District, which includes Clallam and Jefferson counties and about half of Grays Harbor County.
The plan includes the development of an alert system for radio stations, TV stations and social media to allow the public to help in recovering abducted Native American children and missing persons.
Use of force
HB 1735, supported by Chapman and Tharinger, passed the House 90-5 on Friday. It beefs up use-of-force standards for law enforcement officers that lawmakers approved last year and were roundly criticized by police agencies.
Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith testified in favor of the bill before the House Public Safety Committee.
It expands officers’ abilities to use force when taking a person into custody for involuntary mental-health treatment and taking a minor into protective custody.
HB 1868, which has 44 House sponsors among the chamber’s 98 members, would establish minimum nurse-to-patient staffing ratios for 12 hospital healthcare departments for registered nurses, including intensive care units, emergency rooms and labor-and-delivery units, and for 13 departments for certified nursing assistants.
They would range from 1.1 to 1.6 patients for each direct-care RN and 1.4 to 1.50 patients for each direct-care CNA.
The law would prohibit required overtime and require hospitals to set up hospital nurse staffing committees to review annual staffing plans and complaints.
The bill survived its initial hearing Friday morning in the House Committee on Labor and Workplace Standards and will head to review before the House Appropriations Committee, Chapman said.
He joined Tharinger on Friday morning for a call with Jennifer Burkhardt, Olympic Medical Center legal counsel and human resources director. Chapman said later Friday that HB 1868 is strongly supported by the Democratic Caucus in the Democrat-controlled House.
“I have no doubt it will pass the House,” he said.
Chapman, chair of the Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, has not decided how he will vote.
“They are saying in order to comply, they may have to reduce services. I want the public to know they would have to reduce services,” he said.
“We are asking what reductions they will have to make. We also have a workforce that is overwhelmed, and we don’t have enough workers as is.”
If HB 1868 bill is approved, “at least the workers you do have would be protected and not be overwhelmed, and not have to treat too many clients,” Chapman said.
Tharinger, chair of the House Capital Budget Committee, said he, too, would wait to decide on the bill until it is further hashed out at the committee level.
He said the bill presents staffing standards hard to meet in rural areas that must compete with hospitals in the Interstate 5 corridor.
Nurses are leaving the profession or retiring because working conditions are intolerable, Tharinger said.
“I think the nurses make a pretty good case,” he added.
Van De Wege, a member of the Health and Long Term Care Committee, is scheduled to talk Monday with Burkhardt.
He noted lawmakers in 2019 passed legislation mandating regular rest and meal breaks for nurses and other hospital staff.
“I know hospitals in the state are working to give nurses as much in benefits and bonuses as they can,” he said.
“I get that nurses are struggling, and it’s quite a tough occupation right now.”
The legislation “is a big-city idea” that would burden small-town hospitals “and just make it really difficult for places like OMC and Jefferson Healthcare,” Van De Wege said.
Burkhardt said Friday she is preparing a model to outline the impacts of HB 1868 on OMC.
Bill opponents include the Washington State Hospital Association.
“We are certain there would be a major service disruption in Clallam County and throughout the state if HB 1868 passes,” Burkhardt said, predicting bed space would be cut due to lack of applicants for openings.
Nurses at OMC are already being redeployed to different departments to cover staff shortages that have led to an all-time high of 236 vacancies, 72 of which are nursing positions, Burkhardt said. There are 6,100 nurse openings statewide, she added.
The bill’s “one size fits all” approach limits what the hospital can negotiate with the nurses’ union at the local level, said Burkhardt, an OMC negotiator.
“If everyone in the state has rigid ratios, the big systems will utilize the resources they have, including paying higher wages to compete for similar nursing staff.”
Hospitals in California have had nurse staffing ratios since 2004, leading to patient care and quality scores lower than Washington’s, she said.
Olympic Medical Center has worked with Peninsula College to create more training positions and supported student loan forgiveness and increased salaries for teaching staff. OMC recently posted a job opening for a student clinical coordinator to draw students statewide to OMC for teaching practicums and their clinical orientations.
“We know this has been hard on staff, with COVID-19 and so much workforce fatigue,” Burkhardt said. “We have to take measures together with our staff and unions to, especially at the local level, to create solutions.”
Jefferson Healthcare hospital is opposed to HB 1868, CEO Mike Glenn said Friday in an email.
“The most critical need for hospitals and caregivers alike is to address the lack of nursing staff available to take care of patients,” he said.
“We support legislation that increases the availability of nurses at the bedside and do not believe HB 1868 addresses this need.”
United Food and Commercial Workers 21 (UFCW) represents RNs at Jefferson Healthcare hospital and Forks Community Hospital, RNs at OMC clinics and CNAs and licensed practical nurses at FCH and Jefferson Healthcare.
Olympic Medical Center RNs, licensed practical nurses and CNAs are represented by Service Employees International Union Healthcare 1199NW (SEIU).
Thomas Geiger is a spokesperson for UFCW 21.
“We would reject their view of things,” he said of OMC and Jefferson Healthcare.
“There has been a staffing shortage for years caused by all these different bad decisions by healthcare facilities, and that is what we are trying to address through the legislation.
“When we talk to our nurses on the ground and other health providers on the ground in the hospitals, they have been saying this for years,” Geiger said.
“What we need is a solution, and this bill is a solution from thousands of workers across the state.”
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at email@example.com.