Health Care

Wash. Senate passes health care staffing bills

States across the country are responding to workforce shortages stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The sun dial near the Legislative Building is shown under cloudy skies, March 10, 2022, at the state Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

The Washington State Senate passed a series of legislation that aims to address workforce shortages plaguing the health care system.

Under a handful of bills that advanced Monday just ahead of a legislative deadline, nurses and other health care workers in the state would be able to receive insurance coverage for post-traumatic stress disorders, minimum staff-to-patient ratios, expanded breaks and overtime eligibility, and the ability to practice in other states without applying for a new license. 

The measures were approved as legislatures nationwide seek to respond to broad staffing issues stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic. In health care, the issue is particularly acute in rural hospitals and long-term care facilities.

“The current nursing shortage we face is placing a tremendous burden on our nurses,” Washington Sen. Annette Cleveland (D) said in a statement. “Nurses are experiencing burnout and are leaving the profession. By taking these important steps, we can better support our nurses in providing quality care to patients and help retain and expand our nursing workforce.”

Washington State lawmakers are considering a number of bills this session that seek to improve working conditions for overtaxed health care workers and add to their ranks. Some are similar to measures before both Republican- and Democratic-controlled legislatures in other states.

Clustering them on the schedule helped draw attention to the issue, said Erin Hut, a spokeswoman for the Senate Democratic caucus. It also helped beat a deadline: Wednesday was the last day that bills without a fiscal impact can be considered in the chamber in which they originated.

The Senate passed each of the following bills Monday with overwhelming majorities.

  • Senate Bill 5582 would give the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges until December 2024 to develop a plan to train more nurses, prioritizing opportunities in rural and underserved areas.
  • Senate Bill 5538 would increase the number of hours per year a nurse who has retired from a state agency could work in patient care while still receiving a pension — a strategy multiple states have employed to encourage retired teachers to work in short-staffed schools.
  • Senate Bill 5454 would allow nurses to receive workers’ compensation benefits for post-traumatic stress disorders.
  • Senate Bill 5499 would enter the state into the national Nurse Licensure Compact, which allows nurses to practice in member states without obtaining a license.
  • Senate Bill 5236 would establish minimum staffing standards in hospitals, require meal and rest breaks for employees providing patient care, and prohibit most mandatory overtime.

Those measures, with the exception of the Nurse Licensure Compact proposal, were supported by the state nurses’ association. Opponents of entering the licensure compact questioned the safety standards of the interstate nursing board. 

The state hospital association and representatives from several individual hospitals opposed requiring hospitals to adhere to state-imposed staffing requirements, saying it would increase pressure on hospitals that are already cutting services or closing altogether. 

All of the bills now head to the House.

Democrats control both legislative chambers and the governor’s office. Similar measures have found success in states controlled by Republicans.

A Mississippi bill establishing a loan repayment program for skilled nurses awaits Gov. Tate Reeves’s (R) signature after passing both chambers last week. 

Texas Rep. Donna Howard (D), a former nurse, has enlisted two Republican cosponsors on a bill that would require hospitals to have a violence prevention plan in place and would make it easier for hospital staff to report violent incidents to police.