Gazette editorial misrepresented Senate hospital measure and Ritter's veto of labor bill

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

An editorial by The Gazette of Colorado Springs made false claims about a Democratic-sponsored bill on hospital staffing, asserting that the measure would require hospitals to determine and maintain current nurse-to-patient ratios "no matter the circumstances." The editorial also misleadingly suggested that Gov. Bill Ritter (D) vetoed a labor bill over economic concerns.

In a February 13 editorial about Senate Bill 10, The Gazette of Colorado Springs misrepresented the bill to falsely assert that it would require hospitals to "report their current nurse-to-patient staffing ratios to the state and then maintain those ratios, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, no matter the circumstances." In fact, the bill would require that hospitals annually establish staffing plans for nursing services in each patient care unit and specifically provides that "[t]he hospital may deviate from a staffing plan in cases of emergency, as determined by the hospital." The Gazette also misleadingly suggested that Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter vetoed a labor bill, House Bill 1072, because he disagreed with the substance of the bill. But as Ritter made clear in his veto message, it was the "bitter, divisive and partisan battle" over the measure that prompted his veto.

The Gazette's criticism of SB 10 apparently stems from the Service Employees International Union's (SEIU) support of the bill. In addition to the falsehood that the bill would require hospitals to maintain "current nurse-to-patient staffing ratios" every hour of the week "no matter the circumstances," The Gazette misleadingly stated that "many of SB-10's provisions won't necessarily apply" to non-unionized hospitals.

From the editorial "Bad medicine: Senators should nix hospital staffing bill," published in the February 13 edition of The Gazette of Colorado Springs:

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday is expected to vote on a measure, SB-10, that we think is bad medicine for hospitals and health care consumers in Colorado. The bill, which is backed by the Service Employees International Union, would require that Memorial, Penrose and every other Colorado hospital report their current nurse-to-patient staffing ratios to the state and then maintain those ratios, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, no matter the circumstances. Falling short of those ratios could bring potential fines of $5,000 per day for each violation and lead to a hospital's license being revoked.

[...]

The bill seems designed to drive a wedge between hospital staff and management, which might help advance the SEIU's ultimate goal, of unionizing all 50,000 nurses in the state, but will do little to improve health care in Colorado or solve the nursing shortage. The union got a similar, though somewhat beefed-up version of SB-10 through the California Statehouse a few years ago, with unfortunate consequences. Ten hospitals in the Golden State have had to close because they couldn't meet the staffing mandates, according to the DELTA Healthcare Consulting Group of Salt Lake City.

Although SB-10 isn't as extreme as California's law, this is obviously the union's way of getting its nose under the tent. In a year or two, it and its legislative lackeys will be back, demanding higher staffing thresholds and inviting more state meddling in personnel matters that are best left to hospitals. Neither Memorial nor Penrose are unionized, for now, so many of SB-10's provisions won't necessarily apply to them. But the bill's paperwork and reporting burdens are onerous enough to cause hospital administrators serious concern.

Two area senators, John Morse and Dave Schulthies, sit on the committee that will vote on the bill Wednesday. We have confidence that Schulthies will vote correctly, because as a conservative he recognizes there are limits to state power. We're less sure about Morse, however, a Democrat who's already shown a tendency to march in lockstep with liberal colleagues. This will be a test of whether Morse cares more about what's good for the hospitals and health care consumers in the Pikes Peak region, or about currying favor with unions.

On Friday, Gov. Bill Ritter vetoed a pro-union bill, SB-1072, due to concerns about its impact on the state's business climate. Don't Colorado's hospitals deserve similar protection if the pro-union SB-10 threatens to diminish their competitiveness and drive up health care costs? We think so. That's something Ritter and the Democrats backing this measure should think carefully about.

SB 10, introduced by state Sen. Lois Tochtrop (D-Adams County) and state Rep. K. Jerry Frangas (D-Denver), would not mandate that hospitals maintain "current" nurse-to-patient staffing ratios -- either at any given time or "24 hours a day, seven days a week." Rather, the bill would require hospitals to appoint a staffing committee, in collaboration with which each hospital would have to design and implement a staffing plan annually:

By August 15, 2007, each hospital in the state shall develop and implement a staffing plan for nursing services. The hospital shall collaborate with its staffing committee in the development and implementation of the staffing plan. The hospital shall file the staffing plan with the department, shall post the staffing plan for each patient care unit in the appropriate patient care unit in the hospital, and shall provide a copy of the applicable staffing plan to a current or prospective patient of a patient care unit upon request. The hospital, in collaboration with its staffing committee, shall review and update its staffing plan annually and file any updated staffing plan with the department. The department shall include each hospital's current staffing plan on the hospital report card developed and made available pursuant to section 25-3-703.

In direct contradiction to The Gazette's assertion that the bill would require staffing levels to be held constant "no matter the circumstances," the measure explicitly would allow a hospital to deviate from a staffing plan during emergencies:

A hospital shall staff each patient care unit in accordance with its staffing plan. The hospital may deviate from a staffing plan in cases of emergency, as determined by the hospital. The hospital shall make a record of any deviation from a staffing plan and report the deviation to the department in a manner determined by the department.

Contrary to The Gazette's misleading statement that the bill contains "many" provisions that are applicable only to unionized hospitals, there are, in fact, only two such provisions. One of these specifies that in a unionized hospital -- one with "a collective bargaining representative" -- it would be the responsibility of the collective bargaining representative to appoint registered nurses to the staffing committee:

Each hospital in the state shall appoint a staffing committee to assist in the development and implementation of a staffing plan for the hospital. At least one-half of the members of the staffing committee shall be registered nurses currently providing direct patient care in the hospital. If the registered nurses employed by the hospital have elected a collective bargaining representative, the registered nurse representatives on the staffing committee shall be selected by the collective bargaining representative. Participation in the staffing committee shall be considered part of the employee's regularly scheduled work week.

The other provision relevant to unionized hospitals merely states that "[a] hospital staffing plan shall ... comply with and not diminish existing standards in any applicable collective bargaining agreement."

Additionally, in arguing that the bill might diminish the competitiveness of hospitals in Colorado, The Gazette misleadingly stated that Ritter "vetoed a pro-union bill, SB-1072 (sic), due to concerns about its impact on the state's business climate." However, as Colorado Media Matters has noted, Ritter stated in his February 9 veto message that it was the failure of the bill's proponents and opponents to engage in "civil" dialogue -- not the substance of the bill -- that convinced him that immediate enactment of the bill was not in the state's best interest:

During the campaign, two labor organizations asked me in written questionnaires if I would support an amendment to the Colorado Labor Peace Act that eliminates the second organizing election ratifying an all-union agreement. I indicated that I would, believing that requiring a second super-majority election seems, on its face, undemocratic. It also injects government into what should be a private negotiating process between employer and employee.

I recognize how deeply disappointed my friends in organized labor will be with this decision. I know that members of my own party in the legislature stood firm in the face of outrageous, unprecedented and shameful partisan rhetoric done only for political sport.

But I strongly believe that the way we do the people's business is as important as what we do. And I am obligated to judge legislation by its consequences, intended and unintended.

Over the last several days, I have listened intently to people I respect who worried deeply about the impact this change would have on our ability to attract new business to Colorado, to create new economic opportunity for all. I am persuaded by their argument that changing long-time Colorado law relating to business and labor negotiations in this manner, in the atmosphere with which it was debated, is not now in the best interests of our state.

From the beginning, this was a bitter, divisive and partisan battle. Opposite sides dug in, refusing to consider reasonable compromises. It demonstrated precisely why so many people have grown so cynical about American politics. The bill's proponents made no effort to open a dialogue with the opponents. At times, the opponents were neither respectful nor civil. It was over-heated politics at its worst.

How we govern is important to me as governor and to the people of Colorado. The spirit of cooperation and collaboration embodied in the passage of FasTracks, Referendum C and other initiatives offers a perfect example of how we as a state can join forces, forge coalitions and move Colorado forward together.

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