Wearing lime green T-shirts, NYSUT nurses from schools, hospitals and home health organizations teamed up with nurses from other unions for Health Care Lobby Day last month at the Capitol to promote three towering issues: safe staff-patient ratios; a mandatory minimum number of nurses at schools in large urban districts; and the limitation of mandatory overtime for visiting nurses.
After dozens of appointments with lawmakers throughout the day, hundreds of nurses from different organizations gathered in full force on the Capitol lawn: "FLOOR VOTE NOW!" they shouted in defense of the nurse-patient staffing bill.
Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, told nurses that when hospitals faced Medicaid cuts, administrators protested, saying if they had to cut staff, patients would die. That means they realize that more staff means better health care outcomes, he said.
Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, D-Middletown, is a sponsor for all three bills. "We won't stop until we can take care of patients the way our license says we should," said Gunther, a former nurse.
Earlier in the day, nurse Anne Goldman, chair of NYSUT's Health Care Professionals Council and a United Federation of Teachers vice president, shared jarring news.
The esteemed BMJ (British Medical Journal) revealed that "medical errors" in hospitals and other health care facilities 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.
"If that many planes went down in a day, we'd say, 'stop flying,'" Goldman told Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers.
Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, D-Bronx, told NYSUT nurses 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, and nurses, at risk.
Getting these mandates passed means "messing with people's bottom lines," she said, so care needs to be taken to fully explain that hospitals have obligations, including a safe workplace.
"I see the hours that she comes home," said student Siobhan Delaney of her mom, Shawne, a Long Island-based visiting nurse. "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 pressured. We don't want to lose our jobs. We get pushed into mandatory overtime," said UFT visiting nurse Jessica Ruggerio. "They'll drop a case on me at 3 p.m., when I already have three more patients." Ruggiero often works until midnight.
Patients just released from the hospital 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, occupational therapy, a social worker and home health care," said visiting nurse Venise Nelson-Brooks, UFT/FON, whose typical day runs 12 hours — four hours longer than she is supposed to work.
Renee Gestone-Setteducato, a hospital nurse with UFT/FON, 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, giving visiting nurses a heavier caseload.
The situation is critical in schools as well. Syracuse TA school nurses Ann O'Hara and Nancy Liszewski explained how much preventive care nurses perform, along with specialized care for high-needs students.
UFT member Jessy Warren, a school nurse for 17 years, works in Queens at PS 178. "Our position is vital," she said, yet not all school buildings have a nurse.
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 that 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.
School Health Alert
School nurse Nancy Liszewski of the Syracuse TA explained to lawmakers the amount of preventive care and specialized care school nurses perform on a daily basis — despite staggering student-to-nurse ratios.
In Syracuse, nurses have "alert lists" for students whose treatment can include twice daily catheterizations, seizure disorders, behavior concerns, asthma, diabetes, allergies, injuries, etc. One school has 18 pages of medical alerts, Liszewski said.
She shared nurse reports for the 22 school days of March:
- Fowler HS has 954 students. There were 1,400 visits to the school nurse, or 64 visits a day.
- Nottingham HS has 1,300 students. There were 1,689 nurse visits, or 78 visits per day.
- Henninger HS has 1,859 students. There were 980 visits to the one school nurse. There are 1,280 student medical alerts on file.