May 10, 2016

Nurses to lawmakers: 'Our position is vital'

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
nurses lobby day
Caption: (L-R) Maxine Webb & Barbara Wisdom of Federation of Nurses/UFT and Ann O'Hara of Syracuse Teachers Association. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

It was a boisterous day at the Capitol in Albany, where throngs of groups crammed into elevators and filled staircases to lobby for and against various causes, including euthanasia, school bus cameras and all things nurses.

The nurses were in the house and on the lawn. They have already triaged the situation and they knew what the emergencies were. They were ready to speak.

Wearing lime green t-shirts, NYSUT nurses from schools, hospitals and home health organizations teamed up with nurses from other unions to promote three towering issues in nursing: safe staff-patient nursing ratios; a mandatory minimum number of nurses at schools in large urban districts; and the limitation of mandatory overtime for visiting nurses in home care. Their voices were calm and clear when speaking with lawmakers in dozens of appointments throughout the day – but they reached a fever pitch when they rallied on the lawn outside the capitol.

The spring songbirds didn't stand a chance against the raucous calls for "FLOOR VOTE NOW!" for the nurse-patient staffing ratio bill.

Nurses held a banner on an outdoor stage, joined by Assembly members Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, and Aileen Gunther, D-Middletown – a former nurse who is sponsoring all three bills.

Gottfried said that when hospitals faced Medicaid cuts, they fled to lawmakers to protest, saying if they had to cut staff, patients would die. That means they realize that more staff means better healthcare outcomes, he said.

"We won't stop until we can take care of patients the way our license says we should," said Assemblywoman Gunther, getting the crowd to its feet with strong chants of "Pass this bill! Pass this bill!"

In a radio interview earlier in the day, nurse Anne Goldman, chair of NYSUT's Health Care Professionals Council and a UFT vice president, told announcer Susan Arbetter on public radio's Capitol Pressroom that medical error may be the third leading cause of death. (Listen to the audio here. Segment begins at 22:35.)

"If that many planes went down in a day, we'd say, 'stop flying,'" she told Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers.

A report in the Wall Street Journal this week reported that the esteemed British Medical Journal revealed that "medical errors" in hospitals and other health-care facilities are incredibly common and may now be the third-leading cause of death in the United States — claiming 251,000 lives every year, more than respiratory disease, accidents, stroke and Alzheimer's Disease.

Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, D-Bronx, told NYSUT nurses in group meeting that she stopped working as a hospital nurse "because they put my license at risk." On a night shift, she would have to cover two units as the only nurse, with a couple of aides and orderlies. This put patients at risk, as well as nurses.

"I refused to work in an environment that didn't care about my mental health and my physical health," she said.

Getting these mandates passed means "messing with people's bottom lines" and so care needs to be taken to fully explain that hospitals have obligations such as workplace safety.

Students Siobhan Delaney and Lauryn Lee both have moms who are nurses and they came to lobby day to advocate on behalf of them.

"I see the hours that she comes home," said Delaney of her mom, Shawne Delaney, a Long Island-based visiting nurse. "And even when she's home, she still has to do work on the computer. Even this morning — we got up at 3 a.m. to come here — she still had to do work on the computer."

"We feel railroaded, pressured. We don't want to lose our jobs. We get pushed into mandatory overtime," said UFT Federation of Nurses visiting nurse Jessica Ruggerio. "They'll drop a case on me at 3 p.m., when I already have three more patients. I'm out until midnight. They tell me I'm mandated."

Patients just released from the hospital take the most time and require a lot of care, assessment and education. This can help prevent a return to the hospital, saving money and patient stress.

"A new case can take three to four hours. We assess the need for physical therapy, occupation therapy, social worker and home health care," said Venise Nelson-Brooks, UFT Federation of Nurses. Nurses may have to use a wound vacuum or a catheter for cancer patients. A typical day for her begins at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 8:30 p.m.

"Our day is supposed to end at 4:30," she said.

Sheila Manahan, a UFT Federation of Nurses visiting nurse, said: "When my kids were younger … I used to hurry to get home in time for daycare. The owner would be so upset with me." She would have to pay overtime in 15–minute increments. This was usually not due to emergency cases – but because her employer did not have enough staff.

Renee Gestone- Setteducato, a hospital nurse with UFT Federation of Nurses, told lawmakers that patients have much shorter stays in hospitals than they used to. "These patients are going home without being fully recovered," she said. This means the visiting nurses have more of a load.

The Visiting Nurse Association, several nurses explained, eliminated their education department and nurses are told to "Google" new procedures for which they are responsible or to look it up on YouTube.

School nurses such as Ann O'Hara and Nancy Liszewski traveled from Syracuse to speak on behalf of their profession, engaging in earnest conversations with lawmakers and their staff. They explained how much preventative care nurses in their profession perform, along with specialized care for high-needs students, including catheters, diabetic treatments, asthma treatment and injury care.

"Children are among the most vulnerable in our society, beside mentally ill and people with handicaps," said Ruggerio. "We are their advocates."

Jessy Warren has been a school nurses for 17 years; she works in Queens at PSI 178.

"Our position is vital," she said. Despite that need, there are not nurses in every building.

Taking just one issue — asthma – she explained how, with the change of seasons, "My office is packed."

There are also students with seizure disorder, chronic illness and colitis. Due to federal law, more special needs children are now in public schools – but nursing care has not increased to accommodate them.

Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, president of the New York State Nurses Association, said the myth about the health care economy falling apart if more nurses need to be hired is similar to the propaganda put out by the industry years ago when it claimed families would starve due to child labor laws. That didn't happen; rather, adults unionized and received better wages and children were kept safer.