To assist hospitals in meeting the staffing ratio rules, both former Governor Davis and Governor Schwarzenegger dedicated funds to expanding nursing education and reducing attrition from nursing programs. Between 2004 to 2005 and 2009 to 2010, nursing graduations in California increased by 72%, reaching over 11,500 new RN graduates per year (Spetz, 2013).
Are Hospitals Meeting the Ratios?
The inspection and enforcement mechanisms of the DHS are relatively weak. The DHS does not have the authority to impose fines or monetary penalties on hospitals that are found to violate the ratios, but instead requests and monitors plans submitted by hospitals to remedy the problem. However, other mechanisms do exist to ensure that hospitals adhere to the ratios. First, government payers such as Medicare and Medi-Cal (the state Medicaid program) require that hospitals meet all state and federal regulations and can deny payment to violators. Second, California’s cap on malpractice awards does not apply in cases of negligence, and a hospital could be deemed negligent if it consistently did not adhere to minimum nurse staffing regulations (Robertson, 2004). Third, unions draw public attention to hospitals that do not meet the staffing requirements, resulting in negative publicity for hospitals and increased scrutiny from DHS inspectors. Fourth, labor organizations that represent nurses have sought to incorporate staffing standards in their contract negotiations, with some success (Gordon, 2005; Osterman, 2005).
Several studies of all California hospitals have found that annual average numbers of RN productive hours and nurse staffing ratios in medical-surgical units increased markedly between 2001 and 2006 (Conway et al., 2008; Cook et al., 2012; Mark et al., 2012; Munnich, 2013; Spetz et al., 2009; Spetz et al., 2013). Spetz and colleagues (2009) found that statewide average RN hours per patient day increased 16.2% from 1999 through 2006, to an average of 6.9 hours per patient day. Interviews 518conducted with hospital leaders by a research team at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) revealed that many chief nursing officers and other managers said they had hired nurses to meet the ratios, and most noted that it is challenging to adhere to the ratios at all times, including during scheduled breaks (Chapman et al., 2009).
Aiken and colleagues (2010) surveyed nearly 80,000 RNs in California, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to learn their experiences with staffing, the work environment, and patient care. They found that nurse workloads, measured according to the average number of patients per shift, were lower in California than in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and that over 80% of California nurses reported that their assigned workloads were in compliance with the state’s regulation.
Has the Mix of Staff Changed?
There have been concerns that hospitals may have eliminated support staff positions because of the minimum licensed nurse staffing requirements (Spetz, 2001). Analyses of staffing data collected by the Collaborative Alliance for Nursing Outcomes (CALNOC) suggest that the substitution of licensed nurses for unlicensed staff may be widespread as the increase in RN staffing was much larger than the overall staffing increase among their hospitals (Bolton et al., 2007; Donaldson et al., 2005). In a series of qualitative interviews, some hospital leaders reported that they had laid off ancillary staff to use budgets to hire more RNs (Chapman et al., 2009), and the survey conducted by Aiken and colleagues found that nurses perceived reductions in LVN and aide use (Aiken et al., 2010). However, more recent analyses have measured only a slight decline in LVN staffing (Cook et al., 2012; Spetz et al., 2009; Spetz et al., 2013) and aide staffing (Cook et al., 2012; Spetz et al., 2009).
Have Hospitals Reduced Services and Charity Care?
The California Hospital Association warned that strict minimum nurse/patient ratio requirements would force hospitals to reduce their services. To maintain the minimum ratios, hospitals might reschedule procedures, close selected units and beds, or shut their doors entirely. However, there have been few verified reports of the minimum nurse/patient ratios causing permanent closures of inpatient hospital units or beds. There is some indication that there was lower growth in the provision of uncompensated care services among hospitals on which the regulations had the greatest impact on staffing levels (Reiter et al., 2011).
Have Hospitals Suffered Financial Losses?
Since 1999, California hospitals have been financially buffeted by numerous factors, including changes in Medicare and Medicaid payment policy and requirements that hospital facilities meet seismic standards through retrofitting or new construction (Spetz et al., 2009). Thus, it is difficult to determine whether the staffing regulations had any discernable effect on hospital finances. Qualitative evidence reported that hospital CEOs absorbed the costs of the ratios by reducing other budget areas, and some hospitals were able to obtain higher insurance reimbursement rates to cover additional staff expenses (Spetz et al., 2009). However, one analysis found that hospital prices rose even more between 1999 and 2005 than could be explained by labor cost increases that resulted from the nurse staffing ratios alone (Antwi, Gaynor, & Vogt, 2009).
In an analysis of hospital financial data, Cook (2009) found no significant change in total annual labor costs for licensed nurses, total annual hospital costs, or hospital prices. Reiter and colleagues (2012) used data from Medicare cost reports to explore whether changes in financial status differed between California hospitals that had higher versus lower preregulation staffing levels, and between California and other states. They found that relative to hospitals outside California, operating margins for California hospitals with lower preregulation staffing levels declined, and operating expenses increased significantly.
Did Wages for Nurses Increase?
In theory, when the demand for workers rises more rapidly than the supply, wages should rise. Two studies have examined whether growth in the hiring of RNs caused by the staffing regulations is linked 519to more rapid growth in RN wages. One study found that wage growth among urban RNs in California was as much as 12% higher than in other states (Mark, Harless, & Spetz, 2009). A more recent analysis measured a 4.9% increase in RN wages between 2000 and 2007 with one dataset, and no increase at all with a different dataset (Munnich, 2013).
Are Nurses More Satisfied?
Advocates of staffing ratio regulations link improved staffing to nurse satisfaction and argue that greater nurse satisfaction will reduce nurse turnover and lead to better patient outcomes (California Nurses Association, 2009; Public Policy Associates, 2004). An analysis of statewide nurse survey data found that there were significant improvements in overall job satisfaction among hospital-employed RNs between 2004 and 2006 (Spetz, 2008). Nurse satisfaction also increased with respect to the adequacy of RN staff, time for patient education, benefits, and clerical support.
Aiken and colleagues (2010) also found in their survey of nurses in three states that RNs in California were more satisfied with their working conditions. Nurses in California were significantly more likely to report that their workload was reasonable and allowed them to spend adequate time with patients and that they were able to take breaks during the workday. Nurses with lower workloads were significantly less likely to report that they received complaints from families, faced verbal abuse, were burned out, were dissatisfied, felt quality of care was poor, or were looking for new jobs.
Did the Ratios Improve the Quality of Care?
One of the main purposes of California’s minimum staffing legislation was to improve the quality of patient care. However, to date there is no convincing evidence that patient safety or the quality of care has improved. In the first paper published on this subject, rates of patient falls and hospital-acquired pressure ulcers reported to CALNOC between 2002 and 2004 were analyzed for 68 hospitals, and it was found that there was no statistically significant change that could be attributed to the ratios (Donaldson et al., 2005). A follow-up study of data through 2006 confirmed these results (Bolton et al., 2007). These analyses had two main shortcomings: They included only a subset of California’s hospitals and the two outcomes examined might not be very sensitive to changes in licensed nurse staffing. Studies that examine whether licensed nurse staffing affects rates of hospital-acquired pressure ulcers and postoperative hip fractures from a patient fall have produced mixed findings (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 2005).
Aiken and colleagues linked their survey data to secondary data on patient outcomes collected by state government agencies (Aiken et al., 2010) and found that in all three states studied, higher nurse staffing levels were associated with lower rates of 30-day inpatient mortality and failure-to-rescue. These relationships were stronger in California than in other states. However, this analysis cannot confirm that the staffing regulations directly caused changes in patient outcomes. Research based on a single year of data does not measure the effect of changes in policy or practice on changes in patient outcomes. Although the responses of nurses regarding the patient safety environment suggest that the lower workloads in California are associated with more positive nurse perceptions of patient safety, these perceptions may not lead to actual improvements in patient outcomes. It’s important to note that the analysis of patient outcomes in this study was limited to two outcomes.
Several newer studies have used multiple years of statewide data and examined a wider variety of outcomes. For example, Spetz and colleagues examined OSHPD patient discharge data for all nonfederal, general acute care California hospitals from 1999 through 2006 but could not associate improvements in outcomes to the implementation of the ratios (Spetz et al., 2009). In a more rigorous analysis of OSHPD data from 2001 to 2006, Cook and colleagues (2012)found no association between changes in nurse staffing and changes in pressure ulcer rates or failure-to-rescue a patient after a 520complication. Using similar methods, Spetz and colleagues (2013) examined six patient safety indicators using OSHPD data from 2000 to 2006 and found that growth in registered nurse staffing was associated with an improvement for only one outcome, mortality following a complication. They also analyzed whether the average length of stay declined among patients who experienced adverse events to explore the possibility that improved surveillance in better-staffed hospitals might reduce the severity of any complications. They found growth in staffing was significantly associated with reduced length of stay for only one patient safety indicator: select infections due to medical care.
The most comprehensive analysis of the impact of California’s regulations on patient outcomes was published by Mark and colleagues (2012). Using patient discharge data from California and 12 comparison states they examined whether differences in staffing changes between California and other states were associated with different patient outcome trajectories. Their analysis also considered differences between hospitals with high preregulation staffing as compared with low preregulation staffing. They found that failure-to-rescue following a complication decreased significantly in some California hospitals, and infections caused by medical care increased significantly in some California hospitals as compared with comparable hospitals in other states. There were no statistically significant changes in either respiratory failure or postoperative sepsis.
Together, this research indicates that California’s regulations did not systematically improve the quality of patient care, although there remains a need for more research on this topic. The outcomes examined thus far have been relatively limited, and it is possible that patient care improvements will be found in other areas such as medication safety. It also is possible that changes in patient outcomes caused by the staffing ratios occur over a longer period of time. However, examining and interpreting data over a longer period of time will be complicated by the fact that many health systems and hospitals have established quality improvement programs in response to increased public attention to medical errors and patient outcomes.
One remaining issue central to the debate about minimum nurse/patient ratios has yet to be addressed: What was the total cost of the ratio regulations?
Cost of the Ratios
Any positive impact of minimum staffing ratios should be weighed against their cost (Donaldson & Shapiro, 2011). As of 2014, these costs had not been accurately quantified. A careful accounting of the extent to which increases in nurse staffing were necessitated by the ratios, and the cost of any such increases, is necessary. Moreover, it is important to quantify the value of other investments hospitals might have made if they were not required to adhere to the staffing ratios. A hospital may have delayed implementation of a new infection-control system that would have reduced infection rates, and such opportunity costs should be included as part of the overall cost of the staffing regulations.
The only federal regulation that directly referred to nurse staffing levels in hospitals at the time of writing is the 42 Code of Federal Regulations (42CFR 482.23[b]), which requires hospitals that participate in Medicare to have “adequate numbers of licensed registered nurses, licensed practical (vocational) nurses, and other personnel to provide nursing care to all patients as needed” (American Nurses Association, 2009). In 2009, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced S 1031, and Rep. Janice Schakowsky (D-IL) introduced H.R. 2273, both of which would have required that hospitals implement nurse-to-patient staffing plans and meet minimum RN nurse-to-patient ratios for specified patient care units. These bills did not pass, although the bills were reintroduced in 2011 and 2013.
Some states have pursued their own staffing regulations. State regulations generally take one or more of three approaches: a requirement that hospitals develop and implement nurse staffing plans with direct input from nurses, requiring 521public disclosure of staffing levels, and/or establishment of fixed minimum staffing ratios. California is the only state to have implemented a law using this third strategy, although similar legislation has been proposed in other states including Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, and West Virginia.
Some states have opted to develop staffing regulations that offer hospitals more flexibility than fixed minimum staffing ratios. Connecticut, Illinois, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, and Washington have signed into law requirements that hospitals implement and enforce a written nurse staffing policy. In most of these states, the staffing policy must be developed by a committee that includes staff nurses. Rhode Island requires that hospitals submit a “core staffing plan” to the state department of health annually, with specific staffing for each patient care unit and each shift (American Nurses Association, 2013).
The third, and least binding, approach to nurse staffing regulation is to mandate reporting of staffing ratios to the public or to a regulatory agency. In New York, for example, facilities must make available to the public information about nurse staffing and patient outcomes. Specific adverse events, such as medication errors and decubitus ulcers, are considered reportable information under this law. Other states with public reporting requirements are Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont. New Jersey’s regulation mandates that hospitals post daily staffing information for each unit and shift and provide these data to state regulators, and in 2009, New York added a similar posting requirement to its regulations.
Even without new legislation, hospitals are likely to continue to focus on nurse staffing improvements as the evidence suggests that nurse staffing is a good financial investment in quality improvement (Rothberg et al., 2005). More research is needed, however, to determine whether the lack of measured benefit from California’s regulation is caused by limitations of prior research or indicative of an actual lack of impact. If California’s regulation can one day be shown to have improved patient outcomes at an acceptable cost, it will be easier for other states to follow in California’s footsteps.
1. It is not clear from the research conducted thus far whether California’s staffing regulations have improved patient outcomes. However, several studies have found that nurse satisfaction has improved and that nurses perceive that they are providing better care. Is improving nurse satisfaction a sufficient reason to establish this type of regulation?
2. Several studies have suggested that hospitals responded to the staffing regulations by reducing staffing of non-RN personnel. What might be the benefits and consequences of reducing non-RN staffing?
3. Are regulations that require staffing committees likely to effectively address concerns about inadequate nurse staffing? What about laws that require public reporting of staffing levels?
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Frameworks for Action in Policy and Politics
Eileen T. O’Grady, Diana J. Mason, Freida Hopkins Outlaw, Deborah B. Gardner
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
March 31, 2013 marked an important deadline in the implementation of landmark legislation, the Affordable Care Act (ACA)1, also known as Obamacare. By that date those eligible to enroll for insurance coverage through the marketplace had to purchase a plan if they were to avoid a 2015 tax penalty of $95 or 1% of their annual income (whichever was higher). Amid a frenzy of media attention, an estimated 8 million people signed on for coverage during open enrollment—the period between October 2012 and the deadline—exceeding the revised target of 6.5 million (Kennedy, 2014). And the numbers kept increasing, as millions more enrolled in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (known as CHIP) (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services [CMS], 2014).
Nurses were essential to these enrollments. For example, Adriana Perez, PhD, ANP, RN, an assistant professor at Arizona State University College of Nursing, used her role as president of the Phoenix Chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses to organize town hall meetings with Spanish-speaking state residents to explain the ACA and encourage enrollment among those with a high rate of un- or under-insurance. She also developed a training model in partnership with AARP-Arizona and used it to empower Arizona nurses to educate multicultural communities on the basic provisions of the ACA. Through many such initiatives, the United States reduced the number of uninsured people by over 10 million in 2014; the number is projected to be 20 million by 2016 (Congressional Budget Office [CBO], 2014).
However, access to coverage does not necessarily mean access to care, nor does it ensure a healthy population. Health care access means having the ability to receive the right type of care when needed at an affordable price. The U.S. health care system is grounded in expensive, high-tech acute care that does not produce the desired outcomes we ought to have and too often damages instead of heals (National Research Council, 2013). Despite spending more per person on health care than any other nation, a comparative report on health indicators by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2013) shows that the United States performs worse than other nations on life 2expectancy at birth for both men and women, infant mortality rate, mortality rates for suicide and cardiovascular disease, the prevalence of diabetes and obesity in children, and other indicators.
In 1999, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued a report, To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System, which estimated that health care errors in hospitals were the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. (IOM, 1999). By 2011, preventable health care errors were estimated to be the third-leading cause of death (Allen, 2013; James, 2013). The ACA includes elements that can begin to create a high-performing health care system, one accountable for the provision of safe care, as well as improved clinical and financial outcomes. It aims to move the health care system in the direction of keeping people out of hospitals, in their own homes and communities, with an emphasis on wellness, health promotion, and better management of chronic illnesses.
For example, the ACA uses financial penalties to prod hospitals to reduce 30-day readmission rates. It also provides funding for demonstration projects that improve “transitional care,” services that help patients and their family caregivers to make a smoother transition from hospital or nursing home to their own homes to help reduce preventable hospital readmissions. Based, in part, on research by Mary Naylor, PhD, RN, FAAN, professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, these demonstrations are stimulating creative methods of accountability across health care settings, with most using nurses for care coordination and transitional care providers (CMS, n.d.; Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, n.d.; Naylor et al., 2011).
Promoting health requires more than a high-performing health care system. First and foremost, health is created where people live, work, and play. It is becoming clear that one’s health status may be more dependent on one’s zip code than on one’s genetic code (Marks, 2009). Geographic analyses of race and ethnicity, income, and health status repeatedly show that financial, racial, and ethnic disparities persist (Braveman et al., 2010). Individual health and family health are severely compromised in communities where good education, nutritious foods, safe places to exercise, and well-paying jobs are scarce (Halpin, Morales-Suárez-Varela, & Martin-Moreno, 2010). Creating a healthier nation requires that we address “upstream factors”; the broad range of issues, other than health care, that can undermine or promote health (also known as “social determinants of health” or “core determinants of health”) (World Health Organization [WHO], n.d.). Upstream factors promoting health include safe environments, adequate housing, and economically thriving communities with employment opportunities, access to affordable and healthful foods, and models for addressing conflict through dialogue rather than violence. According to Williams and colleagues (2008), the key to reducing and eliminating health disparities, which disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minorities, is to provide effective interventions that address upstream factors both in and outside of health care systems. Upstream factors have a large influence on the development and progression of illnesses (Williams et al., 2008). The core determinants of health will be used to further elucidate and make concrete the wider, more comprehensive set of upstream factors that can improve the health of the nation by reducing disparities. Figure 1-1 depicts the core determinants of health developed by the Canadian Forces Health Services Group.
FIGURE 1-1 Surgeon General’s Mental Health Strategy: Canadian Forces Health Services Group—An Evolution of Excellence. (From www.forces.gc.ca/en/about-reports-pubs-health/surg-gen-mental-health-strategy-ch-2.page.)
A focus on such factors is essential for economic and moral reasons. Even in the most affluent nations, those living in poverty have substantially shorter life expectancies and experience more illness than those who are wealthy, with high costs in human and financial terms (Wilkinson & Marmot, 2003). To date however, most of the focus on reducing disparities has been on health policy that addresses access, coverage, cost, and quality of care once the individual has entered the health care system–despite the fact that for more than a decade research has established that most health care problems begin long before people seek medical care (Williams et al., 2008). Thus, changing the paradigm requires knowledge about the political aspects of the social determinates of health and the broader 3core determinants. Political aspects of the social determinants of health appear in Box 1-1.
Political Aspects of the Social Determinants of Health
• The health of individuals and populations is determined significantly by social factors.
• The social determinants of health produce great inequities in health within and between societies.
• The poor and disadvantaged experience worse health than the rich, have less access to care, and die younger in all societies.
• The social determinants of health can be measured and described.
• The measurement of the social determinants provides evidence that can serve as the basis for political action.
• Evidence is generated and used in a continuous cycle of evidence production, policy development, implementation, and evaluation.
• Evidence of the effects of policies and programs on inequities can be measured and can provide data on the effectiveness of interventions.
• Evidence regarding the social determinants of health is insufficient to bring about change on its own; political will combined with evidence offers the most powerful strategy to address the negative effects of the social determinants.
Adapted from National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. (2007). The Social Determinants of Health: Developing an Evidence Base for Political Action. Final report to the World Health Organization Commission on the Social Determinants of Health. Lead authors: J. Mackenbach, M. Exworthy, J. Popay, P. Tugwell, V. Robinson, S. Simpson, T. Narayan, L. Myer, T. Houweling, L. Jadue, and F. Florenza.
The ACA begins to carve out a role for the health care system in addressing upstream factors. For example, the law requires that nonprofit hospitals demonstrate a “community benefit” to receive federal tax breaks. Hospitals must conduct a community health assessment, develop a community health improvement plan, and partner with others to implement it. This aligns with a growing emphasis on population health: the health of a group, whether defined by a common disease or health problem or by geographic or demographic characteristics (Felt-Lisk & Higgins, 2011).
Consider the 11th Street Family Health Services. Located in an underserved neighborhood in North Philadelphia, this federally qualified, nurse-managed health center (NMHC) was the brainchild of public health nurse Patricia Gerrity, PhD, RN, FAAN, a faculty member at Drexel University School of Nursing. She recognized that the leading health problems in the community were diabetes, obesity, heart failure, and depression. Working with a community advisory group, Gerrity realized that the health center had to address nutrition as an “upstream factor” that could improve the health of those living in the community. With no supermarket in the neighborhood until 2011, she invited area farmers to come to the neighborhood as part of a farmers’ market. She also created a community vegetable garden maintained by the local youth. And area residents were invited to attend nutrition classes on culturally relevant, healthful cooking. 11th Street Family Health Services is one of over 200 NMHCs in the United States that have improved clinical and financial outcomes by addressing the needs of individuals, families, and communities 4(American Academy of Nursing, n.d., b). The ACA authorizes continued support for these centers, although the law does not mandate they be funded. Congress would have to appropriate funding for NMHCs but has not done so. (See Chapter 34 for a more detailed discussion of NMHCs.)
The ACA may not go far enough in shifting attention to the health of communities and populations. One approach gaining notice is that of “health in all policies,” the idea that policymakers consider the health implications of social and economic policies that focus on other sectors, such as education, community development, tax codes, and housing (Leppo et al., 2013; Rudolph et al., 2013). As health professionals who focus on the family and community context of the patients they serve, nurses can help to raise questions about the potential health impact of public policies.