Olympic Peninsula Hospitals: Hospital staffing bill threatens rural health care

February 24, 2022

Forks Community Hospital, Harbor Regional Health, Jefferson Healthcare, Olympic Medical Center and Summit Pacific Medical Center believe that rigid hospital staffing legislation (HB 1868) currently under consideration by the Washington State Senate will make permanent the pandemic care delays felt in Clallam, Jefferson and Grays Harbor Counties. If House Bill 1868 becomes law, hospitals unable to hire enough nurses to meet inflexible staffing ration requirements will be forced to decrease and suspend services.

“This legislation will make it harder for us to retain our current workforce and does nothing to increase the number of nurses available,” Harbor Regional Health CEO Tom Jensen said. “We’ve already closed critical services and had to send ambulances away from our Emergency Department for days during the pandemic due to lack of staffing. We are a rural community hospital competing for staff in a national market.”

The bill will also limit scheduled on-call time, a tool many rural hospitals use to staff critical but unpredictable health care needs like emergency surgeries and births. Rural hospitals often do not have enough patients to require full-time staff, but they do need on-call staff to provide essential services when the community needs them, such as labor and delivery.

“People in our community don’t have the option of going somewhere else for care. If we close services, the next hospital is more than 60 miles away – people will be harmed by this policy,” Forks Community Hospital Chief Nursing Officer Kelly Thompson said. “This community needs this hospital, we are in an underserved area that includes large Native American tribes, Hispanic and Guatemalan populations. Under this one-size-fits all approach we all lose.”

HB 1868 is predicted to result in bed closures in larger hospitals, which rural hospitals often rely on to provide critical and specialty care for rural communities. Any reduction in the number of urban hospital beds will reduce the hospitals’ ability to take patients from surrounding rural hospitals.

“We rely on larger partner hospitals to quickly take transfers of critically-ill patients from our rural hospital when they need a higher level of care,” Jefferson Healthcare Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joe Mattern said. “Our care teams are very concerned that this legislation will make permanent the delays and longer transfer times we’ve experienced with bed shortages during the most recent COVID surge.”

“Lack of emergency beds is made worse by closure of beds in larger hospitals in the Seattle area,” Olympic Medical Center Chief Nursing Officer Vickie Swanson, MSN, BSN, RN, said. “What we need are more training programs and increase in access to nursing education so we can fill our nursing positions in Washington State, not staffing ratios that only harm access to care and do nothing to bring nurses to the workforce.”

Summit Pacific Medical Center will also be forced to close Emergency Department and inpatient beds if there are no additional nurses available to hire, reports Chief Nursing Officer Tori Bernier: “We could be closed to new patients in the Emergency Department almost 50 percent of the time, and our inpatient capacity will also be cut in half. When you start adding up the impacts to hospitals in our region, there are going to be very few options for our communities to access emergency and critical care services. This bill would restrict our ability to take care of our community and that is not going to lead to improved satisfaction for anyone working in health care.”

Instead, hospitals are asking lawmakers to consider alternative solutions that will ensure that hospitals and care teams are able to recover from the pandemic and continue to fulfill their mission of providing access to health care.

Members of the public can also help protect rural health care by telling legislators to oppose HB 1868. Click here to send an email to your legislator.


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