Nurse Staffing Ratios May Be Coming to a Hospital Near You

On November 6, 2018, when Massachusetts voters go to the polls to select a new Governor and other key elected officers, they will also consider Ballot Question 1, which will mandate rigid registered nurse staffing ratios for hospitals across the Commonwealth effective as of January 1, 2019. This proposal would make Massachusetts the second state in the United States to have specific staffing ratios mandated in all units. This initiative follows only California, which passed a less comprehensive law through the legislative process in 1999 and provided over five (5) years for hospitals to implement by 2004.[1] The Massachusetts ballot initiative process, like that of some other states, allows the voters to write entirely new law into books. Question 1 appears to be the most heavily-fought ballot initiative in Massachusetts in recent memory. While Massachusetts seems to be the only state this year with a nurse staffing ratio as a referendum ballot initiative,[2] unions nationally will focus on the results of this year’s effort.

What is Question 1?

Question 1, if passed, would mandate highly-prescriptive and specific nurse-to-patient ratios based on the type of patients/units in hospitals, regardless of market, acuity of the patient, physician orders, or nursing judgement. Hospitals are required to implement a written plan detailing the maximum number of patients to be assigned to a registered nurse by unit at all times, while also “concurrently detailing the facility’s plans to ensure that it will implement such limits without diminishing the staffing levels of its health care workforce.”

Hospitals would also be required to develop a “patient acuity tool” for each unit to be used to determine whether the maximum number of patients that may be assigned should be lower than the assignment limits in the law. Notices regarding the patient assignment limits must be posted in conspicuous places, including each unit, patient room, and waiting area.

What are the Ratios?

The specific ratios mandated are summarized as follows (nurse:patient):

  • Step-down/intermediate care 1:3
  • Post anesthesia care (PACU) 1:1; PACU post-anesthesia 1:2
  • All units with operating room (OR) patients 1:1; OR patients post-anesthesia 1:2
  • Emergency Services Department: 1:1, 1:2,1:3, or 1:5 depending on the emergent or urgent nature of a patient which often changes by the minute
  • Maternal child care patients:
    • Active labor, intermittent auscultation for fetal assessment, and patients with medical or obstetrical complications 1:1
    • During birth and for up to two hours immediately postpartum 1:1 for mother and baby; when the condition of the mother and baby are determined to be stable and the critical elements are met, 1 nurse may care for both the mother and the baby(ies)
    • During postpartum for uncomplicated mothers or babies 1:6 (either 6 mothers or babies, 3 couplets of mothers and babies, or, in the case of multiple babies, not more than a total of 6 patients
    • Intermediate care or continuing care babies is 1:2 for babies
    • Well-babies 1:6
  • Pediatric 1:4
  • Psychiatric 1:5
  • Medical, surgical and telemetry patients 1:4
  • Observation/outpatient treatment 1:4
  • Rehabilitation units 1:5
  • All others 1:4

How Would the New Law be Enforced?

Question 1 also requires the state’s Health Policy Commission (HPC) (as opposed to the Department of Public Health, which is the state authority to license and regulate hospitals and other health care providers) to promulgate regulations and conduct inspections governing the implementation of the initiative.  The HPC is a six year old independent state agency charged with monitoring health care spending growth, it does not have the staff or infrastructure to conduct routine hospital surveys to monitor internal facility management and operations. It is also important to note that the proposed ballot would restrict the HPC by preventing it from issuing any delays, temporary or permanent waivers, or modifications of the ratios. Thus, even if the HPC believed that the January 1st  implementation date was unfeasible, it may be prohibited from offering waivers.

The HPC may report violations to the State Attorney General, who could file suit to obtain injunctions as well as civil penalties of up to $25,000 per violation and up to $25,000/day for continued violations.

The Impact if Question 1 Passes

Coalitions have lined up on both sides of Question 1.  Each side has painted dramatically-different pictures of a future for the industry with mandated nurse staffing ratios. The supportive nursing union has cast the initiative as being relatively small dollars for the industry, costing only $47 Million for all hospitals in the state in total according to their study.[3],[4]  The Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association and a broad-based coalition of health care providers and other nursing organizations opposed to the initiative point to studies estimating that the cost will be in excess of $1 Billion to the industry.[5]  Increased costs are based on the need to recruit new nurses, as well as the across-the-board increases in pay. There will be a need to hire 5,911 registered nurses within 37 business days to comply with January 1st  deadline and this is in a state that already has a shortage of approximately 1,200 registered nurses.[6]  Individual community hospitals are reporting projected additional expenditures that amount to more than the $30 Million per year, with teaching hospitals anticipating increased expenditures higher than that.[7]

On October 4, 2018, the HPC issued its independent report on the estimated costs of Question 1, essentially validating the opposition’s concerns, and projecting annual increased costs of $676 Million to $949 Million, and noted that the projections were “conservative.” The HPC study undercounted costs as it only looked at increased costs in certain units, and excluded costs associated with increased staffing in emergency departments, observation units, outpatient departments, or any costs for implementation or to non-acute hospitals.[8]  Wage increases of 4 – 6% are predicted in the HPC study, based on the California experience with across-the-board staffing requirements in place, and estimated increases of total health expenditures in Massachusetts of 1.1 – 1.6%, with increases of 2.4 – 3.5% for hospital spending alone, again, based on a conservative and partial analysis. Thus, it appears that the industry fears of greater than $1Billion in annual increased expenses are valid.

Ancillary adverse impacts anticipated by the HPC included reduced access to emergency care, increased wait times, decreased patient flow, increased “boarding,” and more ambulance diversions.

The HPC also compared Massachusetts to California hospitals and concluded that there was “no systematic improvement in patient outcomes post-implementation of ratios.”

What Should Hospitals be Doing Now?

Question 1, if passed, would only apply to Massachusetts licensed hospitals.  But hospitals and health systems in other jurisdictions should be prepared for similar efforts in their states. The following are some initial steps hospitals should be considering

Access Management.  Access problems will be common starting in January if Question 1 passes. Elective procedures, non-emergent appointments and other services may need to be curtailed effective January 1, 2019.  Hospitals will need to meet staffing levels on that day with respect to then-current inpatients and outpatients.  Avoiding new admissions in December may be necessary to assure the hospital is not in instant violation on New Year’s Day. Early patient contact to warn about the possibility of rescheduling procedures will prudent.

Payer Contract “Reopeners.”  Payer contracting “reopeners” should be added to managed care contracts now. The hospital community has been watching the interest of the unions in pushing nurse staffing ratios in Massachusetts and other states for a number of years. Health systems and hospitals negotiating long-term contracts with payers have often included “reopeners” to permit the hospital to revisit contract rates even during the term of an agreement if certain extreme events come to pass.  Hospitals in all jurisdictions are encouraged to consider adding such reopeners to their agreements today.

Massachusetts hospitals should review their payer contracts now to confirm if they have the right to a mid-term reopening and, if so, provide notice immediately upon passage to their payers that the hospital will need to renegotiate rates to address the increased costs. Charge masters will also need to be reviewed immediately.

Union status? Based on their efforts to rally public support around Question 1, the Massachusetts Nurses Association is trying to do an end-run around the collective bargaining table where their past efforts on the issue of staffing ratios have failed.  Health systems and hospitals should review their collective bargaining agreements to determine whether they are in a position to trigger a reopener during the term of the contract to address the numerous monetary and non-monetary consequences of rigid staffing ratios contemplated by Question 1.

Unit Closure Plans.  If passed, hospitals in Massachusetts will likely need to immediately assess whether and how they could comply with these new ratios. Units that already operate at a loss, or for which meeting the staffing requirements is impossible, should be closed or reduced to the smallest possible patient compliment.  Closure plans and negotiations will need to commence immediately.

Massive Recruitment Efforts.  While there are believed to be a few hospitals that may already meet these staffing levels (at some times), most hospitals will need to recruit many more registered nurses, as well as have additional nurses standing by for fluctuations in patient loads on various units on a daily basis.  As noted above, the law will require hiring nearly 6,000 RNs in the fourth quarter of this year.[9]


If Question 1 passes, conservative projections estimate extreme new costs will be incurred by Massachusetts hospitals, which will result in both reductions in levels of service, and increased costs to payers and patients.  It is important to note that the dire circumstances of the ballot has led to an increasing large number of nursing organizations and physician groups in Massachusetts to all oppose Question 1. While Massachusetts hospitals are making plans akin to natural disaster preparedness, hospitals in other states should watch carefully these events to be ready should similar initiatives arise locally.


[1] A few other states have limited ratios in certain special types units (like intensive care units), but Question 1 applies to all hospital units. [2] See (June 6, 2018); downloaded on October 8, 2018. [3] See

[4] See

[5] See [6]  See Mass Insight Global Partnership, Protecting the Best Patient Care in the Country, Local Choices v Statewide Mandates in Massachusetts (April, 2018) (“Mass Insight Study”) [7] See Financial impact of nurses ballot question? Depends who’s counting, Priyanka Dayal McCluskey, Boston Globe (Sept. 17, 2018). [8] See Analysis of Potential Cost Impact of Mandated Nurse-to-Patient Staffing Ratios, October 3, 2018, [9] Mass Insight Study.