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Westminster Forum Takes Up Question 1: Higher Cost Vs. Better Care

September 21, 2018

WESTMINSTER -- Hospital officials warn that ballot Question 1, which would place stricter limits on the number of patients that can be assigned to registered nurses, would result in an added expense of nearly $9 million for Leominster’s HealthAlliance-Clinton Hospital, though proponents of the bill argue effects would not be so severe.

Hospital CEO Deborah Weymouth and representatives of the Massachusetts Nurses Association each presented their case on Question 1 Thursday at a forum in Westminster sponsored by the Joint Coalition on Health.

“The most important thing I’m going to say is this is a great idea. We love our nurses,” Weymouth said of the ballot question. “Having more nurses, on face value, sounds like a great idea.”

Though staffing numbers would vary based on the type of treatment unit, Weymouth said passing the ballot question would require additional nurses in many parts of the hospital and would cost HealthAlliance about $8.9 million to do so.

“It’s a big number. It will be an incremental cost in revenues we don’t have in a declining resource environment,” Weymouth said, referring to recent cuts in federal reimbursements for Medicaid and Medicare patients, as well as the increasingly complex health needs of the region’s aging population.

Sandy Ellis, a registered nurse and local representative for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, and Diane Lane Cormier, a registered nurse at HealthAlliance, argued that Question 1′s benefits to patients outweigh the cost to the hospital.

“If we have safe patient limits, we’re going to be able to provide better care for our patients,” said Cormier. “If we are stretched too thin and we have too many patients, I can’t catch those vital changes in the patients.”

Cormier and Ellis said the MNA estimates that 77 percent of Massachusetts nurses are regularly reporting errors in treating patients due to the number of people they are responsible for and that 64 percent of nurses have reported patients experiencing injury or harm because they believe there are not enough nurses.

“We have been working through the Legislature to pass various versions of this in excess of 20 years. This year we said enough was enough and we have to take it to the voters,” said Ellis. “And these limits we’re proposing aren’t the ceiling. They’re the floor.”

Ellis also refuted the amount of money Weymouth said the hospital would have to spend on hiring new nurses.

“The cost to HealthAlliance would be very small. The nurses are already there,” she said.

Weymouth’s defense of citing the roughly $9 million cost to comply with new patient ratios was further challenged by the MNA. At several points, Ellis referred to ”$161 million in offshore accounts” that UMass Memorial Health Care has, which Weymouth did address by saying that money is reserved for the hospital’s insurance payments.

“Most other hospitals do the exact same thing,” Weymouth said. “There is no reason to vilify what the hospital is trying to do.”

Weymouth also warned that having to pay for more nurses would mean having to pull money from other areas of the hospital and threaten existing services and positions.

“My guess is the people particularly at risk are the children’s hospitals and the psychiatric hospitals. It’s anticipated that those will probably be the first to go,” she said. “Community hospitals will be next.”

Question 1 will be voted on as part of the Nov. 6 ballot.

Follow Peter Jasinski on Twitter @PeterJasinski53.

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