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What Is The Government Doing To Protect Health Care Workers?

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An epidemic of injuries among nurses has spurred some government officials to consider increasing worker protection through stricter regulation. What laws aim to further health care worker safety in the near future?

Nurses, certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and other health care workers suffer approximately 9,000 injuries every day, an injury rate worse than for those who work in construction, law enforcement and firefighting. The problem has been noticeable for more than a century, as nursing textbooks began documenting the troubling injury rate in 1898. Despite the problem's prevalence, chronicity and visibility, health care employers have done relatively little to decrease the number of nursing injuries.

The long-ignored epidemic recently received increased attention at the government level, as officials begin to realize that hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and agencies repeatedly invest heavily in areas other than employee safety. Health care worker injuries negatively affect nurses and patients, but the problem also has negative economic consequences that resonate with officials and lawmakers:

  • In 2011, nearly 60,000 work-related injuries and illnesses forced hospital employees to miss work.
  • Workers' compensation payouts to hospital employees reach approximately $2 billion each year.
  • The cost of replacing an injured nurse ranges from $27,000 to $103,000.

As the above numbers show, the health care injury problem is more than just a point of contention between employers and employees. It is a national safety problem and a daunting economic deficiency that will worsen, absent dramatic change.

Why Is Regulation Needed? 

Annual health care spending in America approaches $4 trillion, according to Forbes ($3.8 trillion in 2013, $3 trillion in 2012).

Thumbnail image for nurse holding patient's hand.jpgWith so much money involved, one might assume that health care employers sufficiently invest in their most valuable assets - nurses, CNAs, aides and orderlies. Unfortunately, the nursing workforce routinely loses internal budget battles. Historically, hospital officials elect to allocate money for things like health care technology rather than employee safety initiatives.

Government officials have noticed that this short-term focus leaves nurses - and the entire nation - in an extremely vulnerable state. Swift intervention is critical, because several factors are going to intensify the nurse injury epidemic:

  • As the baby boomer generation reaches retirement age, the nation's dependence on health care will surge.
  • Changes to the U.S. health care system are giving more people access to care.
  • Rising obesity rates - 35 percent of adults are now obese - and related health problems may affect more than 80 million Americans.
  • The nursing workforce is aging, as the average age of a nurse has increased by two years from 2000 to 2010.

The above factors are part of the reason the country is expected to suffer a nursing shortage. Nursing shortages compound existing problems like understaffing and put more strain on health care workers who are expected to do more with less. Without fundamental changes, it is reasonable to assume that the nursing overexertion injury rate will continue to rise.

Health Care Worker Injury Reporting

From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to the Department of Labor (DOL), multiple federal agencies help regulate the work environments of American health care workers. But one agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), is creating a regulation that may change the work-safety culture in many health care environments.

health care laws.jpgCurrent OSHA regulations require employers to create a paper record anytime a worker is injured or suffers a work-related illness. The paper records are stored at the hospital, nursing home, clinic or business headquarters and not much is typically done with them. These records provide documentation for state and federal regulators and are used in workers' compensation claims, but they aren't readily available to the public. As injuries mount, that is about to change.

A proposed rule would require certain health care employers to electronically transfer work injury records. Big employers with at least 250 employees would be required to send these records to OSHA every four months. Smaller health care businesses that have more than 20 workers would have to send their records to OSHA once a year.

Once received, OSHA would redact confidential information and then upload the data to a portal where the public could access it. People would just need Internet access to learn things such as:

  • The number of illnesses and injuries that workers suffered at each employer
  • The title - RN, CNA, aide, orderly, technician, etc. - of each injured worker
  • Relevant information about how the injury or illness occurred, such as when a nurse suffers a back injury while lifting or assisting a patient

The proposed rule would create transparency concerning health care worker safety and allow employers to forge their own reputations for safety or a lack thereof. This could impact how desirable a place is to work. We previously discussed how working conditions can impact a nurse's ability to do his or her job, so this new data could help patients make decisions concerning where they want to receive health care services.

Regulation At The State Level

States are also free to regulate the safety of health care facilities within their borders. Some choose to model their regulation after the requirements of federal agencies, but some states view federal regulations as the bare minimum and try to be at the forefront of improving health care safety law. California recently took measures to keep hospital workers from suffering preventable musculoskeletal injuries.

Known as the Hospital Patient and Health Care Worker Injury Protection Act, this law requires California hospitals to take the following actions:

  • Replace the manual lifting and transferring of patients with lifts/hoists and lift teams
  • Include a safe patient handling policy in a mandatory injury and illness prevention program
  • Maintain a safe patient handling policy through lift teams and training
  • Refrain from disciplining a health care worker who refuses to lift or transfer a patient due to safety concerns or because equipment or a trained lift team is not present

According to the American Nurses Association (ANA), 12 states regulate safe patient handling:

California

Hawaii

Illinois

Maryland

Minnesota

Missouri

New Jersey

New York

Ohio

Rhode Island

Texas

Washington

While states can try to enforce health care worker safety through state law, it is ultimately the responsibility of each employer to prioritize the well-being of its employees. States can punish violators, but that will not help a nurse heal from an injury that could have been prevented.

Even With The Best Programs, Injuries Still Happen

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recently invested $200 million in patient lifts and hoists that were installed throughout its network of hospitals. The first-of-its-kind program has already made a positive impact, reducing employees' patient lifting injuries by 40 percent.

While patient hoists and lifting teams can significantly reduce the number of health care worker injuries, nurses understand that they have a physically demanding job where the injury risk cannot be eliminated. This line of work requires improved resources for health care workers after they suffer an injury.

Protect Yourself Financially

Workers' compensation, Social Security Disability (SSD) and other government benefits may assist an injured nurse, but they do not sufficiently protect against the financial hardship caused by serious injury or illness.

Private disability insurance is crucial for the health care workforce. Most health care employers that provide employee benefits offer - or even require - employees to carry disability insurance. A disability insurance carrier can pay as much as 60 percent of a person's monthly income if he or she suffers serious injury or illness and can no longer work. If you are a health care worker who isn't covered, contact your human resources (HR) department and insurance agent as soon as possible.

Sadly, disability insurance carriers are often reluctant to pay out claims, even when an injured nurse provides excellent documentation of his or her injury or illness. Sometimes an insurance company wrongfully delays or denies a claim and the health care worker needs the help of a skilled long-term disability attorney.

DarrasLaw - Helping Injured Nurses Collect On Disability Insurance Policies

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DarrasLaw has earned the title America's Top Disability Law Firm by recovering nearly $800 million in wrongfully denied insurance benefits - much on behalf of nurses and other health care workers.

Founded by Frank N. Darras, our firm was built on caring deeply about the well-being of each and every one of our clients. We represent clients in all individual and long-term disability insurance disputes, ranging from $50 a month to ones exceeding $1 million.

Call DarrasLaw at 800-458-4577 or contact us online for your free case review. We will help you at any stage of your individual or long-term disability insurance claim.

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