Stronger safeguards needed in N.J. hospitals, nursing homes
Newark Star Ledger
Friday, January 13, 2012
By Ann Twomey and Chrystal Disant
Should corporate lobbyists decide whether safe equipment and procedures are needed if you or a loved one have to go to a hospital or nursing home? Or should health care professionals make those decisions?
That’s the type of issue being debated in our Statehouse and in Congress over safeguards that protect the public’s health and safety.
Last month, special interest lobbyists convinced the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a bill — the REINS Act — designed to make it practically impossible for federal health and safety experts to set standards that all corporations must follow. No major safeguard could be adopted unless every single word were approved by Congress.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged the Senate to pass the House bill, arguing it would prevent “intrusive” regulation of the health care and banking industries, in particular.
What does this assault on public interest regulation mean in human terms? Ask a New Jersey nurse named Jean Lucas.
As Lucas testified before the state Legislature, her back was permanently injured while lifting a maternity patient. At that time, the hospital didn’t provide mechanical lifting devices to bear the weight. Lifting devices had been proven at hospitals in other states to reduce caregiver and patient injuries, but New Jersey had no legal standards requiring hospitals and nursing homes to use them.
Lucas missed months of work and endured a wide variety of treatments. After 24 years of service, she told legislators, “I live in constant pain, some days much worse than others.”
Studies show the typical nurse lifts 1.8 tons during each shift. Before mechanical lifting devices were required in N.J. hospitals and nursing homes, more than half of nurses reported that they had suffered costly injuries from lifting and moving patients.
Similarly, proven measures to reduce violence against caregivers — lighting, alarms, communication systems, training and more — had been well-known. But these steps were not legally required of all facilities. Fifty-two percent of hospital nurses and radiology technologists reported experience with violence or physical harassment on the job, and patient safety suffered as well.
Fortunately, caregivers, their unions and workplace safety organizations were able to persuade then-Gov. Jon Corzine and the state Legislature to enact statewide standards. By last month, hospitals and nursing homes were required to establish committees made up of at least 50 percent front-line caregivers to choose and deploy safe lifting devices, violence prevention measures and other required protections.
During hearings on these laws, nurses and other health professionals presented research showing that investing in these safeguards had saved millions of dollars in other states. Facilities saved on medical payments and workers’ compensation; overtime, recruiting and training costs to cover for injured workers; administrative down time; and much more.
Yet corporate CEOs continue to try to block such health and safety protection. They want to use the REINS Act and other legislation to make it easy for corporate lobbyists to block meaningful federal standards on clean air and water, workers’ rights, consumer protection and many other issues. Then they want to pass legislation in New Jersey that would bar the state from adopting safeguards that the federal government hasn’t enacted.
Safe lifting and violence prevention rules for hospitals and nursing homes are among standards that either didn’t exist in our state or are weaker at the federal level. Others involve oil spills, nuclear and chemical plant accidents, food and toy safety, and lead poisoning of children and building occupants.
It’s understandable that corporate CEOs and Wall Street don’t want legal standards to intrude on their profits. But the rest of us need stronger federal and state safeguards, such as the new hospital and nursing home protections, that will protect our health and safety — and save all of us money.
Ann Twomey, R.N., is president of Health Professional and Allied Employees, New Jersey’s largest health care union. Chrystal Disant, R.N., is a board member of the New Jersey Work Environment Council.