Oregon hospital industry group floats alternatives to nurse staffing bill

The largest nurses union in Oregon wants the state to establish minimum patient-to-nurse ratios in law

By: - January 19, 2023 6:00 am
Staff care for a Covid-19 patient at Oregon Health & Science University.

Oregon lawmakers this session will consider proposals to put more nurses in hospitals. Nurses and other health care workers care for a COVID-19 patient at Oregon Health & Science University. (Courtesy of OHSU)

The Oregon hospital industry wants the Legislature to increase the number of nurses – in part by using  state money for incentive programs to help hospitals hire and train nurses.

The Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, which represents the state’s 62 hospitals, on Wednesday released details of its proposals for addressing the nursing shortage in a news conference. The issue was also discussed in a legislative committee meeting. 

The lack of nurses impacts patients, forcing them to spend days in emergency rooms waiting for beds to open or in smaller hospitals when they need a transfer to a larger hospital for specialized treatment. 

Hospital industry officials say these proposals would help:

  • Senate Bill 485 would add nursing students to an existing program that gives scholarships to health care students. Students can qualify for the program by committing to serve underserved populations, such as rural and low-income Oregonians. Nursing students training to be registered nurses or licensed practical nurses would qualify for scholarships.
  • House Bill 2926 would give hospitals funding or other incentives for offering nursing students opportunities for clinical training. Hospitals would get money  based on participation. If the bill passes, the Oregon Health Authority would establish the program and determine how much money hospitals could get. 
  • State tax credits for nurses who teach in nursing programs. Schools sometimes struggle to recruit nurse educators because nurses often can earn more in the field than through teaching. 

Hospital officials haven’t determined how much the proposals would cost.

The state’s largest nurses union, the Oregon Nurses Association, has proposed establishing minimum nurse-to-patient staffing ratios in law to fix the crisis. The industry group is opposed to that move, saying it would be too rigid. 

Becky Hultberg, president and CEO of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, said in a news conference Wednesday that hospitals agree with the union that the nurse staffing system needs fixes. But she said the minimum staffing standards outlined in the union’s proposal, House Bill 2697, would force hospitals to curtail services and shut down beds. 

Andi Easton, vice president of government affairs for the hospital association, repeated that message in testimony to the state Senate health care committee.

“If we are required to have so many providers per patient and you do not have those providers available, your only option is to reduce services,” Easton said.

Finances are another concern. Hospitals also face growing financial pressures and often operate at a loss, Hultberg said. Nearly two-thirds of Oregon hospitals lost money in the third quarter of 2022, she said. During the pandemic, hospitals received millions of dollars in federal funding but that has tapered off while costs for supplies and labor have increased.

Hultberg called for a joint discussion of the issue, saying the hospital association is willing to work with all sides to come up with solutions. She also said she worries that people are getting tired of hearing about the crisis.

“I worry that we have become too used to hearing about long wait times in emergency departments,” Hultberg said. “Or indifferent to the idea that someone can’t get a needed surgery or procedure in a timely manner.”

Paige Spence, director of government relations for the nurses union, told the committee that recruitment and long-term solutions are important, but the group’s goal is to stop the escalating crisis.

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Ben Botkin
Ben Botkin

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.

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