Last updated: March 18. 2013 8:56PM -

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YOU DON”T have to look hard to find a hospital nurse who feels overworked; stories of long shifts, mandatory overtime and understaffing are as common as a winter head cold.


In fact, you don’t have to look for a nurse at all. Ask anyone you know who recently spent time in a hospital and you’re likely to hear a story or two about problems getting assistance, about haste and lack of personal attention, or at the very least about how the wonderful nurses seemed perpetually harried while still doing a great job.


So it is understandable that, at first blush, most would praise State Rep. Phyllis Mundy, D-Kingston, and State Sen. Daylin Leach, R-Wayne, for proposing state-mandated nurse-to-patient ratios. The immediate reaction for many is surely “What took so long?”


And while few familiar with the plight of hospital nurses would begrudge them more help, this issue defies any simple solution.


For starters, there’s the powerful need to lower health insurance costs in this country; premiums chronically far outpace inflation and wage increases. Simply mandating more nurses creates the very real risk of adding pressure to that trend without necessarily improving care.


Then there is the fact that many places are experiencing nurse shortages. Mandating the demand does not improve the supply. It is plausible a state ratio requirement would increase mandatory overtime as hospitals struggled to comply with the new law while coping with the old staffing availability.


And there is the overused -- but not always illegitimate -- argument of arch conservatives that government should not determine how a business fulfills its needs. There is ample proof that businesses will exploit workers relentlessly without goverment intervention, but it is also true that the medical field is already reacting to profound market changes regardless of government action.


Costs have escalated too fast to keep sustain many businesses. Hospitals have merged, alliances have formed, insurance companies and providers alike are adapting to the reality that money is limited and the days of of payment without concern for outcomes are ending.


Mundy and Leach are to be lauded for broaching the notion of mandated nursing ratios. Something has to be done.


But this topic is complex and this field is evolving. A heavy-handed government mandate could ultimately hurt more than it helps.


Caution and flexibility are the true mandates here.

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