Nurses lobby to expand ranks

A nurses union is in Washington this week to push for legislation that will expand the profession’s ranks and to urge Congress to take up a broader overhaul of the healthcare system.


National Nurses United, a roughly 155,000-member union, will lobby lawmakers and march on the Capitol to push for several bills it says will help combat the nursing shortage and make patient care safer. Unsatisfied with the healthcare reform legislation that passed this spring, the union also will push for a more ambitious revamp.

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“Meaningful healthcare reform has to be single-payer, to leave profit out of it to make sure patients can be truly taken care of,” Jean Ross, one of the union’s three co-presidents, said. “Is there anything there about quality in there? It is about providing health insurance to some people, not everyone, which is what we wanted.”

Having held its first convention in December 2009, the new union is a member of the AFL-CIO. It hopes to use the credibility of the nursing profession — which it considers an untapped political resource — to get Congress to move again on healthcare reforms, even though lawmakers may feel issue fatigue after debating it for more than a year.

About 1,000 nurses from the union are in the nation’s capital this week, according to organizers. They will hear speeches from Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka on Tuesday at the Washington Hilton and will march from Union Station to the Capitol on Wednesday morning. That afternoon, they’ll meet with individual lawmakers.

The nurses union is supporting legislation introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) that would establish a federal standard for a nurse-to-patient ratio at hospitals nationwide. The bill is modeled after a California state law that set minimum ratios there.

Union officials point to a University of Pennsylvania study, issued last month, to bolster their case that the state law has been a success and should be copied at the national level. The study, published in the journal Health Services Research, found that there would have been almost 14 percent fewer surgical deaths in New Jersey and more than 10 percent fewer surgical deaths in Pennsylvania in 2006 if hospitals in these states had followed the California model.

“It has proven just what we said it would do. More nurses come into the profession, more nurses stay in the profession and hundreds of thousands of patients’ lives can be saved,” said Ross, also a working nurse from Minneapolis.

The union is also lobbying for bills that would instill federal standards for patient safety as well as grant full collective bargaining rights to nurses working for the Veteran Affairs Department. Ross said the pieces of legislation are small steps toward making sure everyone has access to quality healthcare.

“We have so much support not just from our members but from other unions, our families and our friends,” Ross said. “For people who don’t have a job or health insurance, they are paying attention. It is a good time to continue to push.”