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Illinois Nurses Call For Safe Patient Limits

Dana Vollmer / NPR Illinois
State. Rep Fred Crespo, a Democrat from Hoffman Estates, is sponsoring legislation to limit the number of patients under a nurse's care. Also pictured: nurses Melissa Bertoletti and Patricia Meade.

Illinois nurses are calling on state lawmakers to restrict the number of patients under their care.

Under the Safe Patient Limits Act, no nurse working in a hospital could be responsible for more than four patients at a time.

That number would be lower for special units like maternity wards, intensive care units and emergency rooms.

Paul Pater, with the Illinois Nurses Association, said high patient-to-nurse ratios are dangerous for everyone.

“Hospitals and administrators take advantage of our empathy and sense of duty to our patients to force unsafe situations on the nurses of Illinois in a misguided attempt to save money,” Pater said.

According to the INA, lower ratios reduce the likelihood of death, injury and readmission among patients. They also decrease the likelihood of workplace violence, illness and injury for nurses.

As an ER nurse, Pater said he’s regularly handling up to eight patients at a time — and his experience is not unusual.

Melissa Bertoletti recalled being the only nurse on duty in the ER with more than 20 patients waiting to receive care. Bertoletti had to leave a woman who had fallen to the floor to help another person suffering a heart attack. The woman who collapsed soon died.

“She was about 45 years old — somebody’s mother, somebody’s aunt,” Bertoletti said. “The reason why that happened was because we didn’t have another nurse.”

Patricia Meade has been a nurse for 30 years. She said hospitals don’t staff for the worst case scenarios.

“It isn’t ‘what if.’ It’s what does, can and will happen — not every now and then, but on the day-to-day, the minute-to-minute and the hour-to-hour,” Meade said. “Where does that leave the nurse? She’s still liable, always. What the nurse didn’t do, why didn’t she do it faster, what was she thinking?”

State Rep. Fred Crespo, a Democrat from Hoffman Estates, is sponsoring the legislation, under which hospitals could be fined up to $25,000 for going over the limit. He expects they will challenge the cost of hiring more nurses.

“We need to make sure that nurses aren’t looked at as an operational expense,” Crespo said, adding that hospitals can save money by cutting the salaries of CEOs.

But hospitals could still have trouble filling positions during a nursing shortage. A state study suggests about one-third of Illinois registered nurses are expected to retire in the next five years.

The legislation is House Bill 2604 and Senate Bill 1908.

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