Nurse ratio bill halted in state Senate

Legislation had passed in House

OLYMPIA — A statewide nurse-to-patient staffing mandate that passed the House was blocked last week by a Senate committee, likely dooming the legislation as the 60-day legislative session barrels toward a Thursday conclusion flush with cash.

House Bill 1868, which split the 24th District’s three lawmakers, was vigorously opposed by the Washington State Hospital Association and the North Olympic Peninsula’s three public hospitals, in Port Angeles, Forks and Port Townsend.

House members approved the staffing ratio bill 55-43 on Feb. 13. Capital Budget Committee Chair Steve Tharinger of Port Townsend voted for the measure and state Rep. Mike Chapman of Port Angeles opposed it after initially supporting the bill.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee took no action Monday, failing to forward it for a floor vote. The 24-person panel, which includes bill opponent Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of Sequim, briefly considered it in an all-day executive session on 77 bills under consideration, Van De Wege said.

The public is excluded from the deliberations.

Chapman said it could be exempt from the cutoff deadline for bills if it’s designated a measure “necessary to implement the budget” (NTIB). The extra step allowed if the budget relies on the bill in order for the spending plan to be complete (leg.wa.gov, “Guide to Lawmaking”).

The possibility did not sit well with Forks Community Hospital CEO Heidi Anderson, who testified before Ways and Means against the measure.

“If it does, that won’t be good,” she said Friday in an email.

Van De Wege said it is highly unlikely it will come up for a floor vote and is effectively dead.

“The Republicans were locked up against it,” Van De Wege said Thursday.

Van De Wege said Thursday that issues addressed in the failed nurse-ratio bill such as restricting mandatory overtime were best dealt with by hospitals working with unions. He and hospital officials said the legislation would have harmed rural areas.

“The best thing we could do is get more nurses,” he said.

“They are often overworked, and during COVID they have been mistreated and faced tremendous risks to their health,” he said in an email. “There is no question they deserve relief.”

Van De Wege said late Thursday afternoon his attention was focused on Friday’s 5 p.m. cutoff for policy bills.

“We are 24 hours away from a huge cutoff,” he said then wearily, adding it felt like Ways and Means took action on the staffing ratio measure a year ago.

At around 4 p.m. Friday, Senate Bill 5919, for which Van De Wege was the prime sponsor and in favor of which Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith testified, passed the House 86-12, sending it to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature.

It refines police reform measures approved in 2021 on the standard for “reasonable care” in determining when and whether to employ physical force and for when peace officers can initiate a vehicle pursuit.

Van De Wege said the Legislature is trying to address staff shortages with SB 5892, a pilot-project high school nursing program for training certified nursing assistants, approved 49-0 by the Senate. Peninsula College has a nursing program.

The policy bill for SB 5892 was not voted on in the House by the cutoff deadline but may still be funded in the budget, Chapman said Saturday.

“We’ll know Monday or Tuesday,” he said.

Jennifer Burkhardt, legal counsel and chief human resources officer at Olympic Medical Center, said SB 5892 is in keeping with partnerships OMC has fostered to address the nursing shortage.

“There is a broader effort that needs to occur and a lot more steps that we can take both at OMC and with our partners in the community and the state level,” she said.

“We’re always looking at collaborative problem-solving with the union, and to that extent, we are in negotiations and a lot of work is underway. We won’t be able to completely solve those concerns until we have enough staff.”

OMC spokesperson Ryan Hueter said OMC is recruiting to fill 79 registered nurse vacancies and offering a $10,000 incentive to applicants. There were 72 openings as of Jan. 21 on a staff with 375 RN positions.

“Healthcare systems across the country are facing a shortage of qualified workers,” he said in an email.

A nursing shortage before the pandemic was exacerbated by early retirements, he said.

Tharinger said smaller sole community hospitals such as those on the North Olympic Peninsula would have had four years to implement the nurse-to-patient ratios. HB 1868 required establishment of hospital staffing committees and had the Department of Labor and Industries regulate them and staffing standards.

“There is a nursing shortage, but I think there’s some credibility to the argument that nurses are leaving hospitals because of an overburdened schedule, being on call, and having too few people to work,” Tharinger said.

“They need to make an effort so staffing ratios and their demand on staff is more compatible to the nurses. I want people to start paying attention to this and work a little harder in trying to solve this problem,” he said.

“You talk to nurses, and they spend four years in a program and do practicum, and they are saying this is a tough environment to work in,” he said. “They feel exploited.”

The Washington State Hospital Association “put a full-court press on” to kill the bill, Tharinger added.

Beth Zborowski, a WSHA spokesperson, said Friday the group spent an estimated $25,000 to $35,000 in newspaper, radio and digital advertising on the Olympic Peninsula to urge defeat of the legislation.

She said its passage would have led to a loss in medical services due to nurse shortages.

Anderson said Friday in a text message that Forks Community Hospital’s obstetrics department would have shut down had HB 1868 been passed. After-hours surgery would have been eliminated due to on-call restrictions, she said.

Zborowski said hospitals are committed to fulfilling the promise of HB 1155, approved in 2019, that could not be fully implemented due to the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic. It mandates meal and rest periods and prohibits mandatory overtime.

Exceptions include “when the employer has used reasonable efforts to obtain staffing,” according to the bill report (leg.wa.gov).

HB 1868 added the provision that those reasonable efforts cannot include mandatory overtime that is used to fill vacancies resulting from chronic staff shortages.

Chapman said budget negotiations between the House and Senate on their respective supplemental, capital and transportation budgets will be finalized by midweek.

Chapman said lawmakers also are considering the $16 billion Move Ahead Washington transportation infrastructure package proposed by the Democratic Party, of which Chapman, Van De Wege and Tharinger are members.

Tharinger, a six-term legislator, said the supplemental budget was the largest he has seen and more like a biennial spending plan.

“The revenue stream has been strong and robust into the state coffers,” he said, attributing the flow partially to federal stimulus funds.

Built into a supplemental capital budget of about $1 billion will be federal Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act funding for clean water, stormwater, sewage system and culvert improvements, Tharinger said. It also will include bond funds, federal recovery money and transfers from the state operating budget.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].

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