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Nursing overtime spurs safety concerns

Posted: Monday, March 24, 2008

Lawmakers in the Senate Finance Committee heard continued testimony Friday on a bill that would outlaw mandatory overtime for nurses except in a few cases.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Some nurses, nursing groups and other supporters of the measure say overworked nurses in Alaska pose a serious threat to their patients and themselves, and a state law is needed to protect them from being forced to work overtime.

"Mandating that nurses work overtime could be unsafe," said Sue Behnert, a nurse at the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium.

But hospital administrators say mandatory overtime isn't a problem in Alaska, and the bill is an unneeded extra regulation that would bog down hospital staff.

"There are so many regulatory burdens already on administration at the hospital, we do not like to see one incorporated if it was not necessary," said Catherine Carter, the chief nursing officer at Bartlett Regional Hospital.

Carter said there were more than 200 nurses working at Bartlett, and mandatory overtime was used only rarely, for unplanned events, such as operations that take longer than expected.

Statistics provided by the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association show that Bartlett mandated 108 hours of overtime during 2007, and 120 hours in 2006.

Donna Meiners, a former nurse at Bartlett for more than 25 years, said nurses know better than lawmakers what's best for themselves and their patients, and the Legislature shouldn't intrude into their profession.

"I don't think I was ever forced to work overtime," said Meiners, who is now retired and lives in Anchorage. "There were times I said put me down for mandatory overtime so I could call my husband and say, 'Honey, I can't come home.'"

Both sides agreed there is a shortage of working nurses in Alaska. State statistics show there are about 9,000 licensed nurses in Alaska and about 5,000 who are working.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, has been moving through the Legislature since last year. With a few weeks left in the legislative session, an aide to Davis said he was hopeful the bill would be voted on by the committee soon.

Committee member and Juneau's lone senator, Democrat Kim Elton, has already voted for the bill in a previous committee and said he plans to vote for it again.

"It's a consumer-protection bill," Elton said.

"We regulate how many hours a miner can work at the mine; we regulate how many hours a trucker can drive; we regulate how many hours a pilot can be in the cockpit," Elton said. "There is a question of patient safety and nurse safety if in fact you work for 12, 14, 17, 20 hours."

The bill doesn't prevent nurses from voluntarily taking overtime, so long as a nurse doesn't work more than 14 hours without a 10-hour break between shifts.

The legislation also allows for nurses to complain anonymously about staffing levels and patient safety while prohibiting hospitals from retaliating against any nurse who complains.

Tom Obermeyer, an aide to Davis, said the measure was necessary because hospitals can subject nurses who complain to indirect retaliation - like giving them the worst shift assignments - for speaking up.

Obermeyer said the fear of reprisal is why some nurses have been afraid to testify in support of the bill.

Carter said it's illegal to suppress any complaints and Bartlett would never instigate a policy of doing so. And as a group, Carter added, nurses were vocal about their concerns.

"They're not afraid to speak up by any means," Carter said.

• Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or alan.suderman@juneauempire.com.



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