Opinion: SB 5236 isn’t the solution: More nurses are needed, not more regulations

Elizabeth Hovde of the Washington Policy Center shares that creating more commissions, more oversight and threatening penalties is not going to get us more nurses.

Elizabeth Hovde of the Washington Policy Center shares that creating more commissions, more oversight and threatening penalties is not going to get us more nurses

Elizabeth Hovde
Washington Policy Center

It’s back. Last year, a plan to regulate nurse-to-patient ratios failed — for good reason. There is a nursing shortage in the state and nation. Even though hospitals want to ease the workload on nurses who sometimes carry more weight than anyone wants for them, there simply aren’t enough nurses available to hire. 

Elizabeth Hovde
Elizabeth Hovde

But in the second week of this year’s legislative session, the issue was being discussed again. The vehicle for consideration is now Senate Bill 5236. Like last year’s bills, House Bill 1868 and Senate Bill 5751, SB 5236 would require hospital staffing committees to develop staffing plans and address mandatory overtime, meal and rest breaks. Hospitals would be fined if found to be in violation of the nurse staffing committee and staffing plan requirements.

This bill blames hospitals for the nursing-shortage situation, inappropriately. Hospitals, long-term care facilities and many other health care providers are in need of nursing support. An October 2021 Washington State Hospital Association survey showed hospitals alone needed to hire an additional 6,100 nurses to meet staffing needs. Beth Zborowski with the Washington State Hospital Association writes that according to the Washington Center for Nursing, only 1.1% of licensed registered nurses in the state are unemployed and seeking employment as a nurse and only 2.3% have jobs outside nursing.

There are not enough nurses in our state to fill the thousands of vacancies in Washington state hospitals: Think blood. Think turnip.

Hospitals across the state can’t just put up “no vacancy” signs, especially those in rural settings where there aren’t alternate hospitals for patients to go for needed care. Some hospitals are already having to shut down procedures and practices or divert care.

Instead of blaming and micro-managing hospitals — and possibly fining them for a nursing shortage largely outside of their control — the Legislature should focus on growing more nursing opportunities in our state and allowing innovations being explored by some hospitals to take various tasks off of nurses’ backs. It should also join the Nurse Licensure Compact to allow qualified nurses licensed in other states to work here on a multi-state license, even outside of COVID-19 emergency times. 

Creating more commissions, more oversight and threatening penalties, as SB 5236 would do, is not going to get us more nurses. See the recent public hearing on the issue to learn more on TVW.

Elizabeth Hovde is a policy analyst and the director of the Centers for Health Care and Worker Rights at the Washington Policy Center. She is a Clark County resident.

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