A nurse holds up a sign during a demonstration outside Watsonville Community Hospital on Wednesday.
(Nick Ibarra / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Health & Wellness

State backs away from assigning more patients to nurses following protests in Watsonville, beyond

A battle over a pandemic-driven change that opened a path for hospitals to potentially assign more patients to nurses has ended in a victory for nursing unions and health care workers, including those at Watsonville Community Hospital.

State health officials earlier this month announced they will no longer accept any new expedited staffing waivers — and that all existing waivers would expire Feb. 8 — unless the California Department of Public Health determines “there is an unprecedented circumstance.”

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The move came after a string of public actions taken by nurses, including those at Watsonville Community Hospital, who took to the streets multiple times since December to protest the policy change. They argued it would increase the workload for individual nurses and put patients at risk.

“This is an incredible victory for patients and nurses, because we know that safe staffing saves lives,” Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, a registered nurse and a president of the California Nurses Association and its national organization, National Nurses United, said in a news release.

State officials had eased the waiver application process as hospitals tried to keep up with the strains the pandemic has been putting on hospital systems.

The state policy change was announced in December in response to hospital administrators’ calls to ease restrictions on staffing ratios to address what they said were dire workforce shortages as the pandemic surged.

At Watsonville Community Hospital — where a new private equity-backed management company was recently installed on an interim basis — nurses last held a protest about the waiver issue in late January. At that time, they said the hospital had been approved for a waiver but had yet to implement it.

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Less than a week later, state officials announced they would be backing away from expedited waivers.

Amid the victory for nurses and their unions over the waiver issues, the hospital now moves forward with a new interim management company, Prospect Medical Holdings, which has faced accusations nationally of providing poor patient care and has drawn the attention of Congress.

ProPublica, an investigative journalism not-for-profit, found, among other things, that Prospect has a history of closing hospitals the company had promised to preserve. Prospect insists it has done nothing wrong, telling Lookout “the publication’s conclusions regarding our company disregards significant evidence we provided.”

Questions remain over who owns the hospital operations following the mysterious ouster of a different management company, Halsen Healthcare. Nurses at the Watsonville hospital have called on whoever is in charge of the hospital to not scale back services amid the management shuffle.

“The importance of keeping hospital services in our community has never been more apparent or urgent amid the deadly COVID-19 pandemic,” Quiché Rubalcava, an emergency department nurse and union representative at Watsonville Community Hospital, said in an emailed statement in response to a Lookout story about the recent management change.

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“Nurses will do whatever it takes to inform our community, elected officials and city leaders to stand with us in protecting our patients and ensuring Watsonville Community Hospital continues to provide needed services.”