Nurses Decry New TV Spot

Times Staff Writer

Airing across the state, a new television ad features a registered nurse with a stethoscope around her neck, thanking Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for relaxing nurse staffing levels at California hospitals.

The 30-second spot by the California Healthcare Assn., which represents hospitals and health systems, commends Schwarzenegger “on behalf of nurses, doctors and other caregivers who treat patients every day....”

With the state’s nursing shortage, higher staffing levels would be tough to sustain, burdening hospitals with more expense and less flexibility in treating patients, according to advocates of the rule change.

But thousands of nurses, far from grateful to the governor as the ad suggests, are mounting an aggressive and personal campaign against his decision to relieve hospitals of a requirement that would lower patient-nurse ratios beginning in January. They contend the ad is deceptive, mischaracterizing the true feelings of nurses.

Today, nurses were planning to march in protest of a speech that the governor is to give in Long Beach at a women’s conference led by his wife, Maria Shriver. About 2,500 nurses gathered at the Capitol last week, waving signs in protest of Schwarzenegger’s action. It was one of the largest demonstrations against Schwarzenegger since his election last year.


Noting that women dominate the nursing profession, union advocates contend the governor’s policy would create tougher working conditions for women -- at a time when he is portraying himself as a champion of women’s interests. In a sign of the visceral tone of the campaign, nurses are invoking allegations that the governor groped women in years past, using the slogan: “Hands off our ratios.”

“They’re running these ads attempting to act like the registered nurse speaks for the profession, when there’s not a nurse in the state of California that supports the governor’s actions on this,” said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Assn. The group represents about 58,000 of the state’s approximately 300,000 registered nurses. “It’s absolutely deceptive.”

Under a law passed in the Gray Davis era, new staffing ratios were to have gone into effect in January. Instead of six patients per nurse, medical-surgical wards and other units were to set ratios of five patients per nurse, meaning hospitals might be forced to hire more nurses. Schwarzenegger’s administration submitted emergency rules in November delaying the change for three years -- until Jan. 1, 2008.

The ad might run for about two weeks in Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento and the Bay Area. State Treasurer Phil Angelides, a Democrat who attended the rally at the Capitol, said the ad campaign is “disingenuous at best. The fact is that his policies will in fact put patients at risk, and that’s why nurses are in an uproar about them.”

But Jan Emerson, spokeswoman for the California Healthcare Assn., said the ad’s purpose was “educational.”

“The labor unions have been fear-mongering,” she said. “They’ve been telling the public that these changes are going to jeopardize patient care, and that’s absolutely a fallacy. All the governor did was continue the existing nurse-patient ratios.”

The dispute also touches the other figure in the ad, Dr. Mark Bell, director of emergency services for Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center. Bell is shown in medical garb warning that the “rigid staffing regulations” that Schwarzenegger rolled back would have jeopardized medical care.

SEIU Local 121 RN, which represents registered nurses in Southern California, posted a message on its website saying Bell had changed his position, citing a petition that he signed opposing Schwarzenegger’s move to make do with the same patient-nurse ratio.

“We, the undersigned, are angry that patients have been put at risk of preventable death or permanent injury to please the hospital industry,” the petition reads.

In an interview Monday, Bell said that he signed the petition. He said that because he was busy seeing patients, he was not entirely sure what he was signing and simply wanted to show support for the nurses.

He said he has not changed his mind, though, and still believes that the stricter staffing ratios were a bad idea.

Bell said, “As much as I support the nurses in their fight, I don’t agree with the rigid nurse staffing ratios. I have not recanted anything.”

Karen McDaniel, a registered nurse at Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center, said: “He signed the petition, which is diametrically opposed to what he said in the ad. And now he’s trying to flip-flop again in saying he’s in support of the ratios as Schwarzenegger has changed them.”