Berkshire signatures join filing in support of nurse staffing ballot question

Berkshire Eagle: A nurse from Berkshire Medical Center helped deliver signatures Wednesday to a 17th-floor office in downtown Boston, joining members of health, education and labor groups seeking a law they say will improve the safety of hospital patients.

Of the more than 100,000 signatures dropped off with a sense of drama at the Secretary of State’s Office were 4,275 gathered in Berkshire County over the past two months.

Members of the new Committee to Ensure Safe Patient Care deployed an ambulance and gurney to wheel signatures to a news conference on the steps of the Statehouse, then to Secretary of State William Galvin’s office in the McCormack Building at One Ashburton Place.

The Patient Safety Act, as backers call it, would set minimum staffing levels for registered nurses in Massachusetts. From now until November, the Legislature has the option of taking up the measure.

But if lawmakers do not act and proponents meet other requirements, voters will decide the issue after what’s expected to be a vigorous campaign for and against the new rules.

Harley Keisch, a 10-year nurse in BMC’s critical care unit who is on leave, helped lift the signatures onto a counter in Galvin’s office. He also is a member of the committee overseeing the statewide ballot campaign.

“A lot of work went into collecting those signatures,” Keisch said by phone from the Statehouse area. He and other members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which supports the ballot question, fanned out across Berkshire County from September into early November collecting signatures. They visited grocery stores and shopping centers. They say they found willing residents at the Lenox Apple Squeeze event Sept. 23-24.

“The thing that was remarkable for me was how supportive people were,” Keisch said of collecting signatures in support of the ballot measure. “People seemed to get it right away. I think people get it very intuitively.”

If the question reaches the ballot, residents of Massachusetts will hear plenty of arguments for and against in the months ahead.

Sarah Roberts, a 36-year-old Pittsfield nurse working nights on BMC’s critical care step-down unit, joined the signature-collection drive.

“We were out and about in the community, really putting our feet to the pavement,” she said. “Without having the proper staffing, it feels like it’s all hands on deck all the time.”

Most people Roberts and others approached for signatures were receptive to the proposal, she said.

“This really felt like we were putting the people first,” she said.

One man she asked was cool to the idea.

“He said, ‘It’s all about money for you guys, isn’t it?'” Roberts recounted. She said they talked and she argued that the measure is a way to advocate for patients.

“He ended up signing,” Roberts said of the man.

Keisch, of Richmond, said that in his conversations with prospective voters, people seemed receptive to the idea of minimum staffing levels.

“Every nurse — really, every patient in the hospital — gets a good look at how hard-pressed nurses are to deliver good care. We’re stretched pretty thin.”

“I think for most people it’s pretty easy to understand … that you can’t be in two places at the same time,” he said of nurses.

Donna Stern, a union board member and leader of the bargaining committee for RNs at Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, said the union is excited to move toward putting the staffing question to voters.

“It’s an enormous accomplishment. It’s validating, because it wasn’t hard to get those signatures,” said Stern, who spoke to striking nurses in Pittsfield at a rally Oct. 3.

“People were like, ‘I get this.'”

She acknowledged that voters will hear from opponents of the ballot measure. The union’s goal, she said, will be to make its case on staffing face-to-face with voters and “inoculate” voters against the other side’s argument.

“I don’t believe that’s going to be a heavy lift,” she said.


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