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Schwarzenegger sickens nurses 

Nurses, hospital, and governor quarrel over fair nurse-to-patient ratios

In a former lifetime, Arnold Schwarzenegger was notorious for stepping in harm’s way and defeating enemies against all odds. Now, as governor, he’s trying to defeat a measure that would improve the odds for California nurses.

A new law required hospitals to increase their nurse-to-patient ratio from one-to-six to one-to-five on Jan. 1, but Schwarzenegger declared an emergency and tried to have the law postponed until 2008. Last week Judge Holzer Hersher declared a preliminary injunction against the governor’s delay, delivering a great victory to the California Nurses Association (CNA) who’ve been pushing for this legislation for a decade.

Sherri Stoddard, who has worked as a nurse for more than 20 years, most of that time at Sierra Vista Hospital in San Luis Obispo, was very pleased with the court’s decision. The ruling confirms that Schwarzenegger’s actions were against the law, Stoddard said.

‘In my opinion, health care should not be for profit.’

Sherri Stoddard, nurse at Sierra Vista Hospital

“It seems obvious that they wanted to make the emergency changes into permanent changes,� she explained.

The lifelong nurse went on to explain the changes that occurred in the medical industry back in the 1990s, when HMOs (health maintenance organizations) came along and transformed hospitals into profit centers.

“Hospitals are more concerned with profits than the need to serve the patients,� she said. “In my opinion, health care should not be for profit.�

The California Hospital Association (CHA) and Governor Schwarzenegger — who has received over $26 million in contributions from the CHA —maintain that these ratios would create a crisis because there are not enough nurses to staff at that level. But Stoddard doesn’t see it that way.

The problem, she believes, is that hospitals have become more economically competitive. They’re always trying to cut costs, and the highest costs are in labor; so they’ll send nurses home or ask them not to come in to work, just to save money. With that approach, many nurses no longer feel good about the work they are doing or the level of care they are providing, said Stoddard.

“And now they call it a nursing shortage, after they drove nurses away from the bedside.�

If the hospitals would allow their nurses to take care of patients the way they know how, Stoddard is convinced that many of them would return to the profession. The nurses are out there, she said, they just need to be paid fairly.

Nicki Edwards, chief nursing officer at Sierra Vista, is more concerned about the potential impact of the law, which depends on additional legal steps before going into effect.

“It’s very difficult for a general law to take into account all the complexities and best serve the patient,� she said. “There are better solutions than a legislated answer.�

Edwards explained that the new regulation would effectively require the hospital to staff an additional nurse on every shift of every day of the year. In that context, she contends that the nursing shortage is a very legitimate problem.

Sierra Vista will try to recruit new full-time nurses and try to maximize the hours of their part-time staff, Edwards said.

“We’ll do whatever we have to do to comply with the law. But if all else fails, we’ll limit the number of beds. Of course, that’s always our last choice.�

Staff Writer Jeff Hornaday relies on faith-based health care. Take two aspirin and e-mail him at [email protected].

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