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Gov. Drops Nurse Ratio Challenge

After the election defeat, the administration ends its appeal of a ruling ordering more staffing. His battle with the union energized labor.

November 12, 2005|Jordan Rau and Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Jettisoning another apparently losing fight, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has abandoned his yearlong effort to relax rules mandating the number of nurses that hospitals must employ.

His endeavor helped spark the public employee union rebellion that led to the defeat of his special election agenda Tuesday.

Schwarzenegger last November had set aside rules that required hospitals to employ in some wards one nurse for every five patients instead of every six. His administration said it was concerned hospitals could not handle the financial costs involved in hiring more nurses.

But a Sacramento County Superior Court judge rejected the administration's effort in March, and the ruling was upheld by an appellate court. While the administration continued to try to overturn it, hospitals had to follow the new rules and discovered they were not as burdensome as they had feared.

On Thursday, the same day Schwarzenegger publicly pledged to be less combative with those who had opposed his special election, the administration dropped its appeal. "We had 10 months of experience with the court-mandated ratios and there seems to be no negative impact on the healthcare system," Sabrina Demayo Lockhart, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Agency, said Friday.

"Our data shows that hospitals have been able to meet the lower ratios," she said, "and some hospitals have even signed it into their labor contracts."

Leaders of the California Nurses Assn., which persuaded a judge to reinstate the rules in March, said they viewed Schwarzenegger's action as both a "strategic retreat" from a court case that could not be won and an effort to mend relations with those who had defeated the four initiatives he backed on the Nov. 8 ballot.

"The governor did extend the olive branch and we don't want to be ungracious," said Rose Ann DeMoro, the union's executive director. "But as he extends this branch, we will never take our eye off the tree. What we are focused on is that this governor takes his direction from corporations."

The nurses declared it as a victory in a campaign that saw them hound Schwarzenegger at appearances throughout California, holding 107 protests. At one of the earliest, in December, Schwarzenegger told his audience those "special interests" were angry because he was "always kicking their butts."

The rest of the public employee unions turned against Schwarzenegger in January, when he also proposed altering the state's pension system to save money for the state and local governments. Schwarzenegger decided to drop that from his slate of ballot measures after unions discovered it might eliminate death and disability benefits for firefighters and police.

Jim Lott, executive vice president at the Hospital Assn. of Southern California, said the governor's action in ending his appeal of the staffing rules "will have no impact on what hospitals do because they are already attempting to staff at the more stringent levels."

Last March, Lott had warned that the rules might lead to the closure of hospitals "on the cusp of closing because of financial burdens."

Kaiser Permanente and University of California hospitals have stated they have adopted the new ratios. Lockhart said Catholic Healthcare West, the state's largest nonprofit chain, recently agreed to comply.

At a news conference at its Oakland headquarters Friday, the nurses union said the timing of both the initial challenge to the nursing ratios and the decision to abandon the fight appeared to have political links.

The union said Schwarzenegger decided to challenge the ratios two days after the reelection of President Bush, for whom Schwarzenegger had campaigned. He abandoned the legal case two days after his special election defeat, with his popularity having fallen from its great heights the previous year.

"He has to run for reelection," said Deborah Burger, the union's president. "He doesn't have a choice. It's like the bully taking away the kids' lunch money and then expecting the kid to be happy because he invites him to have lunch with him."

The governor's office declined to discuss the politics of the decision, but a senior aide said it had been made a month ago.

The nurse-patient ratios were signed into law by former Gov. Gray Davis in 1999 and took effect in January 2004, requiring one nurse for every six patients. This year, the ratio tightened to one nurse for every five patients.

Superior Court Judge Judy Holzer ruled in March that the administration had failed to provide evidence to back up its assertions that the new rules would create problems for hospitals.

The fight with Schwarzenegger has politicized the 65,000-member nurses union, which previously had not been one of Sacramento's major players. The nurses said they plan to continue to pressure the state's leaders by lobbying next year for a single-payer healthcare system that would abolish private insurers and for comprehensive campaign finance reform.

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