Commentary

To help workers, residents, Pa. needs to boost nursing home staffing ratios | Opinion

April 20, 2021 6:30 am

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By Chris Woods

It has been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States, which tested our hospital and healthcare systems as they have never been tested in modern history. Our nursing homes and long-term care facilities have been climbing an uphill battle, caring for our most vulnerable population, all while battling staff shortages that predated the pandemic.

Our union members have had to keep up with working under the pandemic’s weight, but they are spread thin, taking on double shifts just so that residents receive the care they deserve.

No one understands this more than one member in particular. She called her union rep weekly, crying about how hard it was to care for her patients, only herself and another coworker on a nursing home floor.

During the middle of the pandemic, we left two workers to care for over twenty patients. This particular member committed to caring for her patients and worked nonstop for hours to ensure they received the care they deserved. We hope all nursing home staff are like this member, but we can not ask them to be. Limited staffing puts everyone in danger, both the workers and the elderly,

This member’s story is necessary to understanding why safe staffing levels are so critical in our nursing homes. Pennsylvania’s long-term care facilities are currently required to only provide 2.7 hours of care per day for each resident.

That is less than three hours a day of attention for a senior resident who may have a complex medical case or needs extra care. With this frightening low minimum requirement and the disparate number of workers to the number of residents, it guarantees that residents are not getting the care they so desperately deserve in their final years of life.

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Research has concluded that unsafe staffing in long-term care facilities leads to more frequent malnourishment incidents, weight loss, and preventable falls. Because we do not allow for our nursing staff to be adequately resourced, our residents and patients bear the consequences of this system.

It is not just patients who feel the impact of unsafe staffing; long-term care workers are leaving this profession in droves due to being overworked even before this pandemic. Research has shown that long-term care employees who feel overwhelmed more frequently leave work unfinished when compared to a long-term care employee who has a manageable workload.

These same employees feel undervalued and are looking for a way out of the profession in long-term care facilities when we need them the most. This profession’s turnover rate is allowing some of our most talented healthcare workers to walk away, year after year.

We cannot continue like this, continuously pushing the limits of what is safe for our residents and with healthcare workers holding on by a thread.

Our residents and the dedicated individuals who take care of them deserve better, which means safe staffing limits in all Pennsylvania long-term living facilities. We ask that the Pennsylvania Department of Health, under Gov. Tom Wolf and Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam’s leadership, increase the minimum staffing requirement from 2.7 hours of daily care per resident to 4.1 hours of care per resident in the nursing home regulations.

That 4.1 hours of care per resident means more attention and time to each resident, which means fewer accidents and better overall quality of life for our Pennsylvania seniors.

Residents trust long-term living facilities in their final years of life to care for them, keep them safe and meet their medical needs.

District 1199C members are some of the most dedicated healthcare workers in the Commonwealth who deeply care about those they look after. The books from the Department of Health and Wolf’s current regulations leave us under-resourced and understaffed.

This must change if healthcare across the Commonwealth has a chance at providing the best quality of care for residents of long-term living facilities and can stay in their positions for good.

Chris Woods is the president of District 1199c of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees. He writes from Philadelphia. 

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