AFT President Randi Weingarten screams over nursing staffing shortage. (Hugh McQuaid/ ctnewsjunkie photo) Credit: Hugh McQuaid photo

Connecticut lawmakers will consider mandating nurse to patient staffing ratios in an effort to mitigate a health care “crisis,” a co-chair of the legislature’s Public Health Committee said during a Tuesday press conference with national AFT President Randi Weingarten.

A handful of Democrat legislators stood with nurses and labor officials during a late-morning news conference in the Legislative Office Building. They promised to pursue policies designed to ensure adequate staffing levels and discourage mandatory overtime at hospitals in response to stories of nurses suffering from burnout and trauma as a result of chronic understaffing.  

During the event, nurses described struggling to balance an unrealistic number of patients, which they said has led to a lower quality of care.

“If I have eight patients, am I going to see them every hour? There’s just no way,” Sherri Dayton, vice president for healthcare at AFT Connecticut, said. “And every time I’m not seeing them every hour, their risk of having a poor outcome goes up.” 

Less interaction with hospital staff often results in more frustrated patients. The nurses recounted experiences like being physically assaulted by irritable patients or needing to immediately transition from the heartbreaking experience of failing to resuscitate a young child to dealing with another patient, mad because their request for ice had gone ignored.

“That’s hard,” Dayton said. “You’ve got 30 seconds to walk from one place to the other. They have no idea what you went through and you don’t want them to know what you just saw. Those kind of things are making nurses say ‘I can’t do this.’ We feel defeated.”

Weingarten, head of the union that represents nurses and health care workers at hospitals across Connecticut, began shouting soon after stepping to the podium. 

“We are breaking these people — people who helped us all during COVID,” she said. “I’m sorry that I’m screaming but it requires screaming. How do we not help? How do we keep putting profits over people?” 

She called for state and federal legislation to require safer working conditions. And state and federal lawmakers were present to pledge both. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal delayed a previously scheduled press conference on the war in Ukraine in order to participate. Blumenthal said he believed two planned bills had the support to clear the U.S. Senate, but he was unsure about the House.

Nurses call for staffing ratios at acute care centers, including hospitals. (Hugh McQuaid/ctnewsjunkie photo) Credit: Hugh McQuaid photo

On the state level, Sen. Saud Anwar, a South Windsor Democrat who co-chairs the Public Health Committee, said he would seek legislation that would require staffing levels at hospitals with staffing ratios varying depending on the department. 

“We will need to because the system is going to break,” Anwar, a pulmonologist, said after the press conference. “We will need to have some law that would allow us to have that [staffing] level. We need to get nurses, health care workers, and the hospital administrators in a room along with the insurance industry to have the conversation… We will have to intervene. Otherwise this is going to move in the wrong direction very rapidly.”

However, hospital administrators believe that a focus on mandated staffing levels will hinder talks aimed at supporting the state’s nursing workforce. In a Monday statement, Jennifer Jackson, CEO of the Connecticut Hospital Association, suggested Connecticut concentrate on efforts to educate and retain nurses. 

“A focus on government mandated nurse staffing ratios will stall the work we need to get done.  In fact, staffing ratios would exacerbate the problem, causing delays in care and raising costs with corporate nurse staffing agencies as the likely beneficiaries,” Jackson said.

“Instead, let’s focus on solutions that support patients and the healthcare workforce, set aside policies like staffing ratios that would harm patient care, and work together on advancing legislative action to support recruitment, retention, and safety,” she said.

During the press conference, Weingarten said hospital systems in Connecticut had prioritized profits over patient care.

“We need better than the stories we heard today,” Weingarten said. “We need to solve those stories and Connecticut can do this this session.”