As staffing crisis deepens, DFL lawmakers respond with bill to keep nurses at bedside

Nurses and lawmakers hold a press conference to unveil the Keeping Nurses at the Bedside Act.

Minnesota lawmakers are taking aim at the staffing crisis in Minnesota hospitals and its crushing toll on registered nurses and their mental health.

Members of the Minnesota Nurses Association joined DFL lawmakers at a Capitol press conference Thursday. They unveiled legislation that would set a hard cap on the number of patients under any nurse’s charge, require hospitals to be more transparent and give nurses a say in unit-specific staffing limits in their hospitals.

The Keeping Nurses at the Bedside Act would also direct funds to recruit and retain nurses, including $5 million for student loan forgiveness, and it would fund new mental health programs for hospital staff.

Sen. Erin Murphy, a registered nurse and the bill’s chief author, called the measure “a hyperlocal, hospital-by-hospital approach” to dealing with the staffing crisis.

“This is no quick fix,” she said. “This is a comprehensive proposal to prepare and retain Minnesota’s nurses at the bedside.”

Sen. Melissa Lopez Franzen listens to MNA member Becky Nelson (L) and retired member Jean Forman talk about conditions in hospitals.

Union nurses have been clamoring for action on unsafe staffing levels in their hospitals since long before the COVID-19 pandemic began, making the issue a focal point of their contract and legislative campaigns.

But the pandemic has deepened the crisis. As hospitals buckled under the pressure of multiple COVID-19 waves, some nurses opted to take more lucrative work as temporary “travelers,” while others, like Jean Forman, opted to leave the profession rather than watch standards further erode.

“I left knowing that my moral compass no longer aligned with my employer’s, and that was really hard,” said Forman, who retired from her job as an intensive care nurse at Abbott Northwestern last year.

Becky Nelson, chair of MNA’s Government Affairs Commission, has stuck with her job at Abbott, but the stress of being asked “to do more with less” has led to depression and stress-related hair loss, she said.

While nurses are “putting their physical and mental well being on the line,” St. Joseph’s nurse Daniel Clute added, the impact of short staffing on patient care “keeps us up at night, haunting us.”

Nelson and Clute aren’t the only ones speaking up. Over 200 MNA members joined a virtual town hall with legislators last month, flooding the chat with heartbreaking stories from the front lines and pleas for assistance.

MNA President Mary Turner, a nurse in North Memorial’s COVID ICU, said members reported more than four times as many incidents of unsafe staffing in their hospitals last year – 7,800 reports statewide – as they did in 2014.

The staffing crisis “keeps us up at night, haunting us,” said St. Joseph’s nurse Daniel Clute.

“The thing is, it’s the patients who suffer,” Turner said. “It’s the patients who don’t get turned every hour and a half to two. It’s the patients who don’t get their bathing done. It’s the patients who don’t get the help eating. It’s the medication that maybe isn’t given on time. It’s the treatments that don’t get done…

“We are here because we, honest to God, are seeing that our patients are suffering, and it is intolerable to us.”

Gov. Tim Walz has earmarked $40 million in federal relief funds to reinforce staffing – primarily among nurses – in Minnesota hospitals this winter. Members of the Minnesota National Guard are also deployed to some hospitals.

But the legislation unveiled yesterday, Nelson said, is the kind of long-term solution needed “to ensure hospital executives adhere to the staffing grids they set, and that there are programs in place to support nurses at the bedside, where we want to be.”

Added Clute: “We aren’t trying to sink hospital systems with unreasonable demands. We’re trying to preserve the quality and standards that will keep Minnesota being one of the best states for health care for years to come. We’re trying to protect our patients and our practice.”

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