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AP: "Widow Sues HCA, Says It Understaffs Nurses"

April 11, 2006 -- Today an unsigned Associated Press piece reported that a new lawsuit alleges that the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain, HCA, sought to increase profits by "compromis[ing] patient care by deliberately understaffing registered nurses at its hospitals." The piece provides a good look at the basics of the Kansas lawsuit, which seeks class action status. It might have explored the overall context of the surrounding nursing crisis, in which nurse short-staffing has played a major role. Even so, we thank AP for the article.

The piece reports that the suit was filed in federal court by Mildred Spires, who alleges that her husband Joseph died at HCA's Wesley Medical Center in 2004 because (in the article's words) "the hospital did not have enough nurses working to care for him." The suit seeks class action status and at least $12.5 billion in damages for the millions of patients who have been treated at HCA's hospitals since 1996. The piece notes that HCA's web site says it "operates 182 hospitals and 94 outpatient surgery centers in 22 states, England and Switzerland." The suit was filed by Lawrence Williamson of the Wichita law firm Shores, Williamson & Ohaebosim. The piece reports that the suit claims HCA has spent the last decade or so trying to become a $50 billion company "by reducing costs, primarily by cutting staff." The piece notes that HCA reported 2005 revenues of $24.5 billion. The piece also reports that the plaintiff alleges (presumably in the complaint) that HCA's "reduction of staffing of registered nurses is the evil and the fuel that led to the revenues that has allowed the defendant to expand into all its markets." HCA spokesman Jeff Prescott declined to speak about the actual allegations, but did say the company would defend itself "vigorously" and stated: "Bringing a lawsuit as a class action like that is simply designed to be sensational and get media attention, which drives up health care costs for everyone."

Whatever the merits of this particular lawsuit, it has long been obvious to nurses in the United States that nurses have been short-staffed in thousands of clinical settings in the last decade as part of short-sighted efforts to cut costs, in an increasingly competitive health care environment with limited care reimbursement. See Suzanne Gordon, Nursing Against the Odds (2005); Dana Beth Weinberg, Code Green (2003). Nurse short-staffing, in turn, has a negative immediate effect on patient outcomes, as a significant body of research shows. And it has driven countless nurses from the bedside, exacerbating the nursing shortage and further harming patient outcomes. It is not clear that short-staffing nurses actually saves money in the long run for the health care system as a whole, when all the costs of increased errors, complications, readmissions, nursing turnover, and other foreseeable results are factored in. Recent research by Peter Buerhaus and others suggests that improving nurse staffing could save millions of patient hospital days at less than 1% of the hospital's current operating budget. So we assume that HCA's suggestion that the suit "drives up health care costs for everyone" is based on a view that the suit has no legal merit, rather than on a broader view that adequate nurse staffing is unaffordable, or less important than corporate profits.

We thank the AP for its coverage of these key issues in U.S. health care.

See the article: "Widow sues HCA, claiming it understaffs nurses" from the Associated Press on April 11, 2006.

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