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Nurses and their unions are urging the city and state to increase investments in hospitals to help correct a persistent staffing crisis.
The New York State Nurses Association demonstrated last week in Albany, ahead of the state budget April 1 deadline, to advocate for a spending plan that addresses years of underfunding at safety-net hospitals and allows hospitals to enforce safe-staffing ratios by hiring and retaining staff.
“We need funding now. We can’t wait another year or another two years,” said Pat Kane, the union’s executive director.
She noted that “it has taken far too long” to enforce safe-staffing statutes enacted in 2021. Under the laws, the state Department of Health established safe-staffing ratios for intensive-care units and critical-care units at health-care facilities across New York, and hospitals were required to create clinical-staffing committees to develop staffing plans for every patient-care unit.
Increased funding was particularly important for safety-net hospitals, which serve a disproportionate number of low-income and uninsured patients.
Nancy Hagans, NYSNA’s president, believed that this budget “will demonstrate whether our lawmakers are ready to invest in building a stronger, more resilient health-care system that ensures dignified working conditions for our nurses."
Several legislators came out to support the nurses, including Assembly Members Aileen Gunther and Karines Reyes, and Senator Gustavo Rivera.
“I think a budget that supports our hospitals, that supports our workforce … is what we will continue to push at the table,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.
Senator Jessica Ramos, who chairs the Labor Committee, pointed out that over the past two decades, five hospitals across the state have closed. Steve Bailey, a nurse at Erie County Medical Center and the NYSNA’s western regional director, added that mental-health services in particular have been cut and underfunded.
“At ECMC, our comprehensive psych-emergency program is busier than ever and more understaffed than ever,” he said.
An expensive, temporary fix
During a recent City Council budget hearing on hospitals, officials from NYC Health + Hospitals stated that costs for temporary travel nurses accounted for $144 million of the public hospital system’s budget shortfall for Fiscal Year 2023.
Currently, the H+H system has a 23 percent vacancy rate, with most of the open positions in nursing. The loss of nurses at the public-hospital system has been attributed to a pay disparity between H+H nurses and nurses working in private-sector hospitals such as Mount Sinai Hospital and NewYork-Presbyterian. H+H nurses make about $19,500 less than nurses at private hospitals across the city, and many have left for higher-paying jobs.
Marion Parkins, who has worked as a nurse at Harlem Hospital for 29 years, said understaffing at the facility is the worst she’s ever seen. “You have a 54-bed unit with only five nurses. And if an agency [nurse] is there, she can walk out,” she said. “We need permanently trained staff.”
NYSNA is hoping to close the wage disparity in its contract; the current pact expired March 2. The city and the nurses’ union are currently bargaining.
“We are hoping that through our negotiation with NYSNA, we will have a contract that enables us to keep our nurses,” said Dr. Mitchell Katz, CEO of NYC H+H. “We want to pay fair wages and we want to have wages that allow us to hire and retain our nurses.”
H+H has about 2,000 temporary nurses and 8,000 permanent nurses on staff. Travel nurses earn two to three times more than the permanent nurses do, according to NYSNA.
Katz and John Ulberg, NYC H+H’s chief financial officer, estimated that the staffing agencies currently charge the hospital system an average of about $110 an hour for temporary nurses, although not all of that money goes to the nurses. They added that permanent nurses averaged between $70 and $80 an hour, although that figure was later disputed by Kristle Simms-Murphy, a nurse at Jacobi Hospital who said that nurses at the Bronx hospital averaged $43.45 an hour.
Katz noted that he wished that all of H+H’s nurses were permanent staff. “That requires paying wages that are comparable to those that nurses can earn in the private sector,” he said.
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