Press Release

Nurses Urge DC Council to Pass Emergency Safe Staffing Bill

DC RNs Tuesday Call on Council to End Delay on the Patient Protection Act

Washington, DC registered nurses today called on the District of Columbia Council to pass an emergency bill to immediately improve patient care with minimum standards for safe nurse staffing in DC hospitals – and end a delay on the bill that has been fiercely opposed by a hospital industry that the nurses say has been putting their focus on budget goals and profits ahead of patient safety.

The RNs, members of National Nurses United, will convene at 9:15 a.m. outside the John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC prior to the District Council’s consideration of an emergency measure introduced by Council Member Vincent Orange to implement the Patient Protection Act immediately.

The bill would set specific limits on the number of patients RNs can care for (nurse-to-patient ratios), with additional staffing required based on individual need, similar to limits on class sizes or minimum standards for clean air and water.

Initially introduced in early 2013 with the support of ten members of the District Council, the Patient Projection Act has been ferociously opposed by the wealthy hospital industry lobby. A hearing on the bill was finally held in the Health Committee on November 8, but the Committee has yet to have a vote scheduled on it. Council member Orange, a member of the Health Committee, is calling for a vote now.

“The patient care crisis in DC’s hospitals is an emergency that needs to get addressed immediately by the District government,” said Donna Fleming-Coby, an RN in the intermediate care step-down unit at Providence Hospital.  “Last week, I had to work an 18-hour shift because the hospital will not have enough nurses at the bedside to care of our patients.  This is unsafe for patients.  Many other nurses in our hospital and in other hospitals across the District are forced to care for more patients than is safe.”

“District hospital administrators have yet to present any evidence to refute the compelling evidence of years of scientific research and studies that document a direct link between limiting the number of patients assigned to an RN and patient safety, including fewer patient deaths,” said Margaret Shanks, RN, a neo-natal intensive care transport nurse at Children’s National Medical Center and president of the District of Columbia Nurses Association/NNU. 

“This is a matter of life and death,” added Leah Haileab, an RN in the step-down nursery at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.  “The DC government can either listen to the appeals of the nurses—the caregivers that our patients depend upon-- or it can ignore us and side with the big hospital corporations and put more people at risk.  The choice is that stark.”

“This emergency measure is needed because the Council has failed to act on the Patient Protection Act which was introduced over a year ago.  Registered nurses are patient advocates and we will not relent until our elected representatives address this crisis,” said Jean Kitongo, RN, emergency room nurse at Howard University Hospital.

National Nurses United, together with its affiliate, the District of Columbia Nurses Association, represents 4,400 RNs employed in Washington, D.C., including at seven of the city’s hospitals.


Patient testimony

Testimony by DC patients and family members in the November hearing brought a human dimension to the urgency of action on the bill.

“I am here because my mother is dead, and died in pain, as a result of the crisis in our city’s hospitals,” said Tina Trowell described the pain and suffering experienced by her mother who died in Washington Hospital Center “because of complications related to a urinary tract infection” where “she developed multiple pressure sores covering her entire backside.

“My mother suffered. There was no one to change her dressings when she was incontinent or apply antibiotics in a timely fashion or even give her regular pain medication when the pressure ulcers had grown out of control.” Of the nurses on staff, she said, “there were simply too few of them to care for the large number of patients, including my mother, in an optimal way. No mother should have to die in agony, covered in her own feces as mine did. Every patient deserves to live and die with dignity.”

Mary Neznek shared her experience at Sibley Memorial Hospital when she came for a hip replacement. “The real pain and problems didn’t come from my surgery as you might expect. They came in the hours and days after my surgery, and it was exacerbated because my nurses were so clearly over worked.

“I could see that the nurses were running to get to all of their patients and I could tell they were trying their best, but it was also apparent that they could not do it all,” Neznek said. “No one should have additional pain inflicted on them because hospital management are cutting corners and understaffing nurses.” 

Rabbi Elizabeth Richman described her experience when giving birth at a city hospital. “My son developed feeding issues shortly after he was born.  Overburdened staff would stop in and try to help me feed him as best they could, but mostly they told me there were too few of them working that day and everything would be okay tomorrow when staffing would be back to normal.”

“The staff was larger the next day, but 24 hours later it was just too late.  My son’s feeding problems had snowballed.  My husband and I spent the next four months spending money and time we didn’t have consulting with specialists to help our son. The specialists told us that if there had been people on staff in the first 24 hours to give our son the attention he needed, this would never have happened.”

Forty-five community and labor organizations have endorsed the legislation. In addition, 43 community faith leaders have announced support for the bill and urged the Council to pass it.