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Voters reject Question 1, mandated nurse-to-patient ratios  

  • Political activists stand on Main Street in Athol Tuesday afternoon near the Athol Senior Center, the town's polling place for all precincts.  FILE PHOTO

  • Patty Healey, a recently retired staff nurse, and Suzanne Love a nurse at Bay State Franklin Medical Center in the ER, talk to Elena Ryals-Cochran about voting for question one at Jackson Street School Tuesday afternoon. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Patty Healey, a recently retired staff nurse, and Suzanne Love a nurse at Bay State Franklin Medical Center in the ER, talk to Elena Ryals-Cochran about voting for question one at Jackson Street School Tuesday afternoon. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Patty Healey, a recently retired staff nurse, and Suzanne Love a nurse at Bay State Franklin Medical Center in the ER, talk to Elena Ryals-Cochran about voting for question one at Jackson Street School Tuesday afternoon. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Suzanne Love a nurse at Bay State Franklin Medical Center in the ER, Amy Wolpin, a retired teacher,and Patty Healey, a recently retired staff nurse,and talk to Henry Kowalski about voting for question one at Jackson Street School Tuesday afternoon. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ero Silva is a registered nurse who works at Health South in Ludlow.   STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Patty Healey was a registered nurse for 40 years who retired in July.  STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 07, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — In a defeat for the state’s largest nurses’ union, voters on Tuesday rejected Question 1, which would have mandated patient-to-nurse ratios in Massachusetts.

The vote was a sweeping victory for the “no” campaign, led by the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, which lobbies on behalf of hospitals. With around a quarter of precincts reporting at around 10 p.m., the no side was winning with 70 percent of the total vote. The ballot initiative was the latest step in the Massachusetts Nurses Association’s decades-long fight for patient limits in the state.

“While the discussions and debates sometimes seemed more heated than we would all like,” Cooley Dickinson Hospital’s President and CEO Joanne Marqusee said in a statement to the press, “I firmly believe that the passions of both supporters and opponents of Question 1 reflected their heart-felt beliefs about what was best for our community and for patient care. It is time to move forward with our continued commitment to delivering compassionate, safe, exceptional patient care to our community.”

Donna Kelly-Williams, the president of the MNA, conceded defeat in prepared remarks issued at around 9 p.m. Kelly-Williams thanked the nurses who poured their energy into the campaign, adding that they are increasingly overburdened with patients every year.

“The hospital executives opposed to Safe Patient Limits cried hysteria and chaos about the cost of these safety measures, but clearly spared no resource — with just under $27 million and counting — in an attempt to drown out the voices of bedside nurses calling for help,” Kelly-Williams said in her statement. “These tactics, rooted in fear and confusion, seem to have worked. The voters deserved better.”

Question 1 was certainly the most expensive ballot measure in this year’s elections. 

The opposition to Question 1 spent $24.5 million on their campaign, according to the most recent campaign finance numbers from the state. Those expenditures included a late ad blitz, in which the Coalition to Protect Patient Safety paid almost $6 million to 11 top local television stations over a 20-day span beginning on Sept. 15, according to expenditure reports published by the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

The Committee to Ensure Safe Patient Care, which ran the “yes” campaign, spent $10.5 million this year on their efforts.

As results began to come in Tuesday evening, MNA members and their supporters gathered at their Northampton headquarters on King St., watching a TV and mingling as pizza was brought into the room.

“It gets to my heart, just seeing that,” Patty Healey, an active union member, said anxiously upon seeing the first results come in, showing the “no” campaign with a substantial lead.

Healey, who worked as a nurse for 40 years, explained that union membership has been consistently raising the issue of understaffing for decades. The union first tried to address staffing levels directly with management at the different hospitals.

“As we bargained contracts over the years, we were constantly running into a brick wall with management,” she said, adding that the union has taken 17 strike votes in the state over the last two decades, and some hospitals took part in one-day strikes more recently. “Every single strike was about staffing, and we couldn’t get anywhere with it.”

From there, Healey said the union took the issue to Beacon Hill, where they failed to get a bill passed. Four years ago, the union proposed a ballot initiative on nurse-to-patient ratios, but withdrew it in a compromise that led to the Legislature passing mandated ratios in intensive care units. But that compromise “had no teeth,” Healey said, and so this year the MNA took a comprehensive ballot question right to the voters.

The decision to move forward with the ballot question this year was a difficult one, Healey said. The union had to use a large chunk of their resources, fundraising and saving while cutting back on some services for the membership, such as conventions and a magazine.

But despite the loss, the mood wasn’t all doom-and-gloom among MNA members.

“It’s not going to go away,” said Candie St. Jean, who has been a registered nurse at Cooley Dickinson for the past 26 years. “I think it’s out there, it needs to be addressed … we’re all about patient safety.”

On the side of the “no” campaign, Ann LeBrun, nursing director at Cooley Dickinson, said she thinks there will continue to be staffing issues for hospitals and nurses to address. 

“This isn’t the end of it,” LeBrun said, adding that those problems need to be figured out hospital by hospital. LeBrun said she hopes that Cooley Dickinson and its nurses keep working together to address issues. But after a contentious campaign, she said she’s glad it is finished.

“It’s time to move on, the ballot question is over,” LeBrun said. “I think there’s some healing that needs to be done, but we all want the same thing.”

Voters at the polls on Tuesday expressed a wide range of opinions and emotions.

Kim O’Connor, a nurse who has been at Cooley Dickinson for 40 years, was holding two big “Yes on 1” signs in the rain at White Brook Middle School in Easthampton, her raincoat hood over her head.

“We’ve been working on it for more than 20 years,” she said of the fight for nurse-patient limits. But regardless of the result on Tuesday, she said, a conversation has been started statewide about a central problem for nurses. “No matter the vote … everywhere you go, people are talking about this.”

Walking out of the polls at White Brook, Paige LaFountain, 23, a nurse at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, said that nurses can provide better care if they’re not overburdened with patients.

A point raised by some Question 1 supporters is the large amount of money made by hospitals and their executives. Heather Lohr, an Easthampton voter, said she thinks hospitals have enough resources and should be paying for adequate staffing.

“The people at the top are making too much money,” she said. 

Easthampton voters Susan Ricci, 71, and her husband Richard, 75, said they voted against the measure. Richard echoed points raised by the “no” campaign. He said he worried that patients might be left “waiting on the sidelines” in emergency situations.

For Peggy Neill, a Southampton resident and outpatient services employee at Cooley Dickinson, deciding how to vote was a struggle. But ultimately, she said that the messages her employer sent to her were convincing enough to decide to vote “no.”

“I’m afraid if the government regulates the amount of nursing care, the hospital will suffer expense-wise,” Neill said. 

The question left other voters confused, and at times undecided, as they headed into the polls to vote. Healey, of the MNA, blamed that confusion on the question’s opposition, which she says created a campaign that featured signs and messaging similar to the “yes” side.

“I’ve had such a hard time with the back-and-forth,” Diane Godek said outside the Southampton Town Hall. She said two nurse friends pulled her in opposite directions on the question, and it wasn’t easy to decide which side she would fall on. “I’m just very confused.”

Ultimately, Godek said she would vote “no,” but she is still concerned about nurses being overburdened. 

“Nurses should never be given too many patients,” she said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.