July/August 2013 Issue
June 21, 2013

Nurses push for better care, conditions

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
health care lobby day

Nurses know what is in front of them: patients who need to be assessed and treated. A wound. An ache. But not all nurses know what goes on behind the scenes in their profession - until they come to the Capitol with NYSUT to advocate for bills that can shape and change their workday, their own health and that of the patients they treat.

This year, 90 NYSUT nurses, nursing students and other health care professionals discussed proposed bills with lawmakers and explained why they matter.

"There is no escaping the health care system" - it affects everyone, said Anne Goldman, special nursing representative to the United Federation of Teachers and chair of NYSUT's Health Care Professionals Council. Laws ensure people are provided with the appropriate care they deserve, she said.

"We send a powerful message when our healthcare members, in NYSUT shirts, speak with lawmakers about their personal stories, especially after the massive 'One Voice United' rally," said Kathleen Donahue, NYSUT vice president who oversees health care for the union.

More school nurses

Many parents would be shocked to know there is not a school nurse in every school building. NYSUT nurses and health care professionals spoke passionately about why a nurse in every building is essential - not only as a commonsense safeguard for student health, but also as an investment in educating children in health habits that can last for a lifetime.

Nurses also spoke about the need to improve staff-to-patient ratios. The American Nurses Association reports a correlation between inadequate nurse staffing and poor patient outcomes. Since California passed its 2004 nurse staffing ratio law, the number of actively licensed California registered nurses has grown by an average of more than 10,000 a year, helping to alleviate the nursing shortage, according to the National Nurses Organizing Committee.

Nurse Anne Ko, a UFT member, visited Albany for her first lobby day. She said she came because a nurse advocates for patients. After five years in the field, she realized that "without proper staffing you cannot provide proper care."

UFT nurse Lila Shams may be assigned to care for up to 15 patients a night at the hospital where she works. "It's just a circus," she said.

Safer handling

Safe patient handling is essential for patients and staff. Nurses advocated for measures that would mandate hospitals acquire patient-lifting equipment.

The Fiscal Policy Institute reports the costs for back injuries total an estimated $1.3 billion annually in medical treatment, workers' compensation and lost work days. The high occupational injury rate among nurses leads a significant number to leave the profession, FPI reports.

ICU nurse Howard Sandau, NYSUT's Health Care Professional of the Year in 2012, told lawmakers a back injury costs about $19,000 in expenses, medical bills and lost income, and an injury requiring surgery adds up to about $85,000. Sandau knows: He tore his rotator cuff moving an overweight patient, requiring lengthy surgery and rehabilitation.

"When you cannot regulate the size of the person who gets sick, you better pass the safe-lifting equipment bill," Goldman said. "When it takes six of us to lift someone, that is the wrong use of our skill and time."

Injuries can cost nurses their livelihoods, cause long-term disability, and take away their ability to make a difference in other people's lives, said Carol Braund, United University Professions, a newly retired nurse at SUNY Upstate Medical Center.

No forced OT for visiting nurses

Working forced overtime can put a nurse at risk - an issue that is important to NYSUT's visiting nurses. "I need to be on top of my game. I'm the front line," said UFT visiting nurse Raquel Geddes. Geddes said she sometimes works in unsafe neighborhoods with gangs, and being a nurse out alone at night is not safe.

Senate Democratic Conference Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins, Yonkers, acknowledged health care professionals' importance, noting, "the reality is we all know we need you."