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By Gintautas Dumcius

State House News Service

BOSTON — One in four nurses believe patient deaths are due to nurses having too many patients to care for at one time, according to survey results released Wednesday by supporters of strict limits on nurse staffing levels.

The survey results show patient safety is “erratic, unpredictable and subject to many pressures in the health-care system, most not even related to the actual patients and their needs,” according to state Rep. Denise Garlick, a Needham Democrat and a registered nurse.

Nurses say high patient loads are the cause of poor care levels, preventable medical errors, readmissions and patient deaths, Garlick said at a Statehouse press conference, where she was joined by six House members, Sens. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, and Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, and Massachusetts Nurses Association members.

The Massachusetts Hospital Association, which includes 78 licensed hospitals as members, rebutted the survey, calling it “not credible,” saying there is “no evidence” to support the MNA’s claims, and noting the Commonwealth Fund recently ranked Massachusetts second in the nation for overall health care.

But eight in 10 nurses say patient care quality is “deteriorating” because of the patient overloads, Garlick said.

Boston-based research firm Anderson Robbins conducted the survey of randomly selected registered nurses, commissioned by the Massachusetts Nurses Association and National Nurses United, between May 8 and May 15.

Garlick said other “disturbing findings” include 57 percent of nurses reporting medication errors and 68 percent saying they don’t have enough time to educate patients and provide adequate discharge planning.

“Just think about the liability issues that are out there for all these hospitals,” said Pacheco.

Hospital chiefs oppose rigid limits, saying they prevent managers from making discretionary choices, lead to wasted resources and drive up health-care costs.

Lawmakers have filed bills that would allow the state Department of Public Health to set limits.

A proposed ballot initiative would set a maximum of four patients per nurse. While time is running out for lawmakers to pass an alternative to the ballot question, Garlick said she prefers that the issue be “carefully deliberated and skillfully negotiated” on Beacon Hill.

She called the ballot initiative a “blunt instrument,” but added, “We’ll go to the ballot box if we must.”

The Massachusetts Hospital Association said in a statement to the News Service that patient safety and support for nurses and caregiving teams “has always been the top priority in every Bay State hospital, and our commitment to continually improve the quality of care that we provide will never waiver.”

The hospital association noted that the union promoting the ballot petition paid for the survey.

“It is not credible, and it is troubling that the union, to advance its political agenda, would issue such unsubstantiated safety claims that run counter to the publicly available data and evidence,” the association said. “No federal and state government agency that routinely monitors and licenses hospitals for performance or quality of care has raised concerns on issues that the union makes claims about. There is no evidence to support the union’s claims regarding patient safety. But there is evidence that the quality of patient care in Massachusetts hospitals is of high quality.”

The association added: “Perhaps most importantly, the union does not explain or justify how their mandate would improve care, because it wouldn’t improve care. It would harm access to high-quality care and that is harmful to nurses, patients, and all the communities served by hospitals.”

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