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Nurses say state staffing levels leave patients vulnerable

DENVER – Some Denver nurses said the state’s minimum staffing levels have left them overworked and patients vulnerable to substandard care.

A Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment review of staffing regulations coincided with concerns of nurses at hospitals owned by HealthOne LLC reporting they were overwhelmed, The Denver Post reported.

HealthOne nurses and a doctor said understaffing has led to increases in preventable pressure sores and infections and a failure to regularly provide basic hygiene care.

Stakeholders including associations representing hospitals and nurses plan to write proposed regulations, although the Colorado Board of Health holds final authority and any possible changes likely would not take effect until next year.

HealthOne is committed to providing exceptional care and supporting employees, said Stephanie Sullivan, assistant vice president of media relations for HCA Healthcare, which owns the Denver-area HealthOne hospitals.

Colorado requires hospitals to staff one nurse per unit at all times, although units vary in size and scope. Hospitals can be cited by federal inspectors for insufficient staffing even if they meet the state requirement.

Relatively few hospitals in Colorado have only one staff member on each unit, but nurses are still overworked and “burning out,” Democratic state Rep. Kyle Mullica said.

The Colorado Nurses Association pushed to raise the state’s requirement to two people per unit. Association Executive Director Colleen Casper said one could be a certified nurse assistant or other support-staff member.

“Patients don’t go to the hospital unless they need nursing care,” Casper said. “I don’t see how we can still be arguing about what is safe staffing.”

Amber Burkhart, Colorado Hospital Association public policy director, said the two-person rule does not address different models in urban and rural hospitals and varying staff skill levels.

A two-person rule “really is a stable number and doesn’t take into consideration the flexibility that is needed,” Burkhart said.

Some nurses reported staffing was shorter since the pandemic began, but inspection documents show concerns dating back several years.