Nurses’ union says Mayo Clinic needs the staffing bill it wants to kill

State legislators say Mayo Clinic won’t get an exemption to a nurse staffing bill despite a threat the hospital would pull billions in investments

By: - May 8, 2023 4:31 pm

Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said she is committed to passing the Keeping Nursing at the Bedside Act during a press conference on May 8, 2023. Democratic lawmakers and the nurses’ union denounced Mayo Clinic’s threat to pull billions in investments out of state unless the hospital was exempted. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Union nurses and Democratic legislators say the Mayo Clinic shouldn’t get an exemption from a bill that aims to increase nurse staffing levels, saying even staff at the premier hospital system struggle at times to safely care for patients.

“Mayo relies on last-minute, Jerry-rigging, duct-taping tactics that are not acceptable for nurses and patients,” said Kari Wilkemeyer, a nurse at Mayo Clinic’s facility in Austin, Minn., during a Monday news conference. “There are many times when we’ve taken more than we should.”

The Mayo Clinic issued an ultimatum to Gov. Tim Walz and state lawmakers last week: Gut the bill or lose billions in planned investments.

“Because these bills continue to proceed without meaningful and necessary changes to avert their harms to Minnesotans, we cannot proceed with seeking approval to make this investment in Minnesota. We will need to direct this enormous investment to other states,” Kate Johansen, vice chair of external engagement, wrote in an email obtained by the Reformer.

Mayo Clinic did not respond to requests for comment.

The Minnesota Nurses Association — which represents nurses at some Mayo satellite facilities but not at its flagship Rochester campus — denounced the threat as “corporate blackmail” and reaffirmed their commitment to a bill they’ve been trying to pass in some form for 15 years.

“The patients in Rochester deserve the same staffing protections as every other patient in the state,” said Becky Nelson, a nurse at Abbott Northwestern and chair of the union’s government affairs commission.

The nurses’ union compiled hundreds of reports from nurses at unionized Mayo hospitals in 2022 about staffing concerns, which included a baby on a CPAP breathing machine being cared for by a nurse who hadn’t been properly trained on using the equipment. In another case, a patient reportedly left a Mayo emergency room without receiving care because of understaffing.

Nelson said Mayo’s hardball tactics with state lawmakers are similar to those it deploys against unions — pointing to the successful effort at Mayo’s Mankato hospital to get rid of the union after more than seven decades, with the help of the well-known union-busting outfit National Right to Work Foundation.

The conflict has put Gov. Tim Walz in a political vice between two powerful forces: The unions that helped him win reelection and one of the state’s crown jewels and largest private employer with over 48,000 workers.

State Republicans have urged the governor and their Democratic colleagues to listen to Mayo Clinic and back off two bills the hospital says would be detrimental to its operations — the Keeping Nurses at the Bedside Act and the creation of a health care affordability board.

The union-favored Keeping Nurses at the Bedside Act (HF1700/SF1651) would require hospitals to form committees made up of nurses and other hospital staff to create “core staffing plans” that include the maximum number of patients each nurse can typically safely care for. Eight other states have similar requirements, while California and Massachusetts have more stringent, government-mandated nurse-to-patient ratios.

The nurses’ union says the bill will reduce burnout and lead to better patient care, while hospital leaders have warned the bill would force them to shutter hospital units and turn away patients. Hospital leaders say the bill will result in a 15% reduction in hospital capacity, affecting 70,000 people in Minnesota. Under the bill, the health commissioner must also develop a public grading system to judge how well each hospital complies with its staffing plans.

The Mayo Clinic has offered an amendment to the bill which would effectively exempt all hospitals from its mandates, according to the bill’s authors. They say that proposal is unworkable, and while they’re open to negotiation, they plan to pass a bill that maintains the same goals and applies to the Mayo Clinic.

“I’m committed to this proposal and committed to making it law,” said Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, who is a registered nurse and author of the bill in the Senate. “And to Mayo, I say ‘Stay. Stay and participate.’”

Hospital leaders have also raised concerns about a provision in the bill that would bring in an arbitrator to resolve deadlocks on staffing committees, which would have to be made up half of direct care staff.

“Taking patient care decisions out of the hands of professionals and into an unaccountable and unclear legal process is not in the best interest of Minnesotans,” the Minnesota Hospital Association said in a statement.

The second bill (HF2202/SF2002) Mayo Clinic says needs to be scrapped aims to tackle the ongoing problem of skyrocketing health care costs — likely to worsen as the population ages — requiring ever increasing portions of the state budget to care for people in need.

The bill’s author, Rep. Liz Reyer, DFL-Eagan, said on Monday that negotiations on the bill are ongoing, but she couldn’t provide specifics.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.