The NJ Assembly elections are predicted to be the lowest voter turnout races in years – yet much hangs in the balance of the outcome. After the dust has settled, a number of crucial healthcare issues being addressed in the NJ Legislature remain unresolved, and New Jerseyans will still face a maze of obstacles when they look for accessible, affordable, quality health care.
As nurses and health professionals, we are focused on assuring that the care our patients receive is safe and effective – and that access, choice, and affordability of care are protected. We are intent on protecting the workplace rights of healthcare workers in the many hospital mergers and conversions; preserving our rights to an adequate network of hospitals and physicians; and improving the public health. We supported candidates who stood up for these principles, and who we expect to advance a legislative agenda that puts patients first in the ‘Lame Duck’ legislative session.
- Strengthening Oversight of Hospital Conversions and Mergers. In New Jersey, the consolidation mania among hospitals and insurers is still going strong. The healthcare landscape will soon include only a few CEOs whose financial interests are aligned, whose financial arrangements are proprietary, and who will have great power over access to and the quality and cost of our healthcare. While the NJ Department of Health and the Office of Attorney General provide review and oversight when a for-profit buys a community hospital, the oversight for mergers between not-for-profit hospitals is far weaker. We need laws and regulations to strengthen the inadequate enforcement of conditions placed on sales and mergers; to protect access to health care; to provide transparency throughout the merger and acquisition process; and to preserve healthcare services and workplace rights.
- Overseeing the Horizon ‘OMNIA’ plan: Large insurance companies are teaming up with a few select hospital systems to increase their market share. They are offering new ‘tiered’ health plans with the promise that quality will improve and costs will go down if you narrow your options to these select hospitals. Smaller community hospitals and those serving urban communities are at an increased risk of survival. The hospitals will get more customers through their participation, yet the criteria for selecting the hospitals in Tier One is not public information, and consumers don’t know the financial incentives or savings involved for their providers. With little transparency and public engagement, the NJ Department of Banking and Insurance (DOBI) approved the plan which is already being offered to workers in the Public Health Benefits System. The legislature should review DOBI oversight and ensure that the OMNIA plan maintains adequate networks, is transparent about its hospital criteria, and that the impact on urban and community hospitals is considered.
- Ending surprise medical bills: Consumers who thought they were playing by the rules are still subject to ‘surprise medical bills’, when their provider is outside of their insurance network. The attention given to these billing practices faded after strong opposition from some in the healthcare industry. Consumers need protections from excessive charges, deserve transparency in hospital billing practice, and a voice at the table on this legislation.
- Providing Safe Nurse Staffing: Nurses throughout New Jersey have been fighting for years for a law to ensure safe nurse staffing for patients in every hospital. Legislative hearings were held in March 2015, and nurses shared countless stories of attempting to provide quality care for too many patients at one time. Setting safe limits on the number of patients nurses are required to care for at one time saves lives, and patients and nurses deserve to see S1183/A647 enacted into law this year.
- Promoting Public Health through Earned Sick Leave: Employers who don’t offer earned sick leave force their employees to choose between risking their job and endangering the health of co-workers and the public. Providing workers with family-friendly earned sick leave policies protects everyone. Nurses and healthcare workers take care of sick and immuno-compromised patients, and coming to work sick is a recipe for disaster. When employers in food-service, retail and other industries don’t have policies granting paid sick leave, workers coming into work sick risk the spread of disease. This is a public health measure and deserves passage before the year’s end.
- Protecting the Health and Safety of Caregivers and First Responders. Emergency personnel, nurses and firefighters are our first line of defense in public health crises or catastrophes. Their exposure to toxic substances during these emergencies leaves them more vulnerable to occupational illnesses – yet they often are forced to fight for years for coverage under NJ’s workers’ compensation laws. Unless we protect our first responders, we can’t fully protect the public health in a crisis.