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What’s the status of New York’s safe staffing bill?

Tom Dinki/WBFO file photo
Staff at Safire Rehabilitation of Northtowns nursing home protest over a lack of PPE and training in April 2020.

New York lawmakers are looking to pass sweeping nursing home reforms this legislative session in light of COVID-19. One piece of legislation that predates the pandemic is a safe staffing bill, which would mandate nursing homes meet minimum staffing ratios. 

The New York State Department of Health released a report last August that came out against the Safe Staffing for Quality Care Act.

The report says the longstanding bill, which would mandate nursing home residents get at least 4.8 hours of direct care each day, isn’t feasible, due to a workforce shortage of nurses. Even if there were enough nurses, it would be too expensive to hire them, the report says, as it could cost nursing homes as much as $2.3 billion.


During Thursday’s Legislative budget hearing, Dr. Howard Zucker, the commissioner of the health department, was asked again about the safe staffing bill.


“So I support the need that we have to have more staff. I think that a specific ratio — I don't think that's the way to go,” Zucker said.


He continued that he believes the state needs to increase the number of people going into nursing and help them with professional development. He also added that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is committed to several other nursing home reforms, including mandating that most of a nursing home’s revenue go toward care instead of profit.


Assemblymember Monica Wallace disagrees that staff-to-patient ratios aren’t a solution. Wallace, a Cheektowaga Democrat, noted the recent New York Attorney General report found that nursing homes with lower staffing ratings from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had more COVID deaths than nursing homes with high staffing ratings.


“So given that data, I think we have to take very seriously the need to make sure that we address that issue,” she said, “and require nursing homes, and ultimately, hospitals, to have appropriate levels of staffing so that people can get the care that they need.”


Wallace said she’s heard “horror stories” of nursing home residents soiling themselves while pushing a buzzer and waiting for staff to help them go to the bathroom. 


“And it's not that someone is sitting around and having a coffee break. They're just running crazy with other patients that they're trying to take care of,” she said. “So that's an untenable situation.”


Still, Wallace said the health department’s opposition to the bill is an “impediment” to the bill’s passage. The bill will ultimately have to be negotiation between lawmakers, the health department and nursing homes themselves. 


“That's part of the negotiation process and figuring out exactly what the concerns are,” she said. “But I am encouraged that at this point there is a lot of spotlight on the need to do something about the patient ratios. I'm sure we can do something that still provides some flexibility. But, for the most part, I do think it's pretty clear that what has been in existence isn't working, and we can do better for the people in these facilities and their loved ones.”


Wallace said she does expect safe staffing, as well as other reforms, to possibly pass this legislative session. 


The Assembly version was recently sent to the Ways and Means Committee, while the Senate version of the bill is currently before the Health Committee.

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
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