A bill to mandate uninterrupted meal and rest breaks for nurses and other health care workers is fast approaching two critical deadlines.

The legislation, SHB 1155, has drawn sharply differing views. Unions for hospital caregivers say it is urgently needed to protect patients, while hospital administrators warn it is unneeded and would drastically drive up costs.

The bill is before the state Senate Ways and Means Committee, which held a hearing on it last week. Wednesday is the cutoff date for it to be passed out of committee, and April 17 is deadline for passage by the Senate.

Registered nurses and other caregivers in Walla Walla and the Tri-Cities are backing the bill. Among them is Brenda Gales-Groom, an RN at Providence St. Mary Medical Center, who said the legislation is needed for patient protection.

“Medical staff in Washington aren’t always as alert as they should be because they’re often hungry, tired and overworked,” she said. “When we work long shifts without uninterrupted breaks, we are more likely to make medical errors, putting patient safety at risk.”

The bill was approved by the state House in March, passing 63-34 with state Rep. Bill Jenkin, R-Prosser, voting for it and state Rep. Skyler Rude, R-Walla Walla, voting against. Both represent the 16th Legislative District, which covers Walla Walla and Columbia counties and portions of Benton and Franklin counties.

Proponents say the measure will address “chronic and dangerous fatigue” by requiring hospitals to provide RNs, licensed practical nurses, certified nursing assistants and hospital technicians with uninterrupted breaks during their shifts. The legislation also closes a loophole to stop hospitals from abusing mandatory overtime for nurses, supporters said.

The unions backing the bill are the Washington State Nurses Association, United Food & Commercial Workers and SEIU Healthcare, said spokeswoman Heather Weiner.

But at the committee hearing, administrators said the bill would take away flexibility and would be not be a solution suitable for all hospitals, especially rural ones.

“The problem here is that we are trying to address a very small, but important, problem ... but we’re trying to do it with too broad a solution,” said Ian Goodhew, University of Washington Medicine director for government relations.

Goodhew told the committee if the bill is passed, “we would have to hire a (full-time employee) per unit, per shift, as a backup or relief ... regardless of whether the person is used or not.”

Committee member Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, asked how the bill would “impact a Pomeroy, Davenport (or) Odessa-type hospital” funded by property taxes which “would have only one or at best two nurses on duty?”

“That’s another problem with this bill,” said Lisa Thatcher of the Washington State Hospital Association. “It’s a mandate that’s ‘one size fits all,’” regardless of a hospital’s size or location, she said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

Andy Porter has been with the Union-Bulletin since October 2000. His beats include Walla Walla County, city of College Place, Washington State Penitentiary, agriculture, environment as well as a wide range of general assignment topics.

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