On Thursday, a panelist of registered nurses from the PA Departments of Health, Human Services, and Corrections spoke out to demand resources they need to rebuild our public health system and care for their patients.
“We need everyone to understand that our public health departments are important, and if they are not properly staffed, if funding is cut, it affects our entire communities,” said Brittany Felentzer, RN at Torrance State Hospital. “Staffing was a challenge even before COVID, but during a pandemic we – just like any other hospital – need to have proper staffing to take care of our patients and stem the spread of the virus.”
COVID-19 laid bare the long-standing flaws, failures and weaknesses of our healthcare system and the slow and steady defunding of our state health departments. Years of understaffing, poor recruitment and retention of nurses, and a state legislature that continually prioritized corporate tax breaks and privatization over public health has left nurses struggling to care for those they serve.
“When we’re properly staffed, I really think this job is the best kept secret in nursing,” said Christina Hauser, RN, with the Department of Corrections. “But when nurses are mandated to work overtime every week, it’s just unsustainable. We care for patients in some of the most extreme, challenging circumstances. No one can be expected to put in extra hours all the time. I’ve been at my facility for 4 years, and we haven’t kept a new RN longer than a year in all that time because the mandatory overtime is too much.”
Nurses in the Department of Health, who are charged with educating and mitigating all communicable disease outbreaks, have been uniquely challenged. “Even before COVID we were stretched thin,” said John Berezanksy, RN with the Dept. of Health. “Now nearly everything we do is focused on the pandemic. The problem with that is that other diseases haven’t stopped to make room for COVID. We are still managing measles, mumps, tuberculosis, HIV, and other diseases across the state. We are still trying to care for those people and make sure we don’t have large outbreaks that will cost lives.”
Pennsylvania ranks a shocking 44th out of 50 states in the amount spent on public health per capita. Between 2010 and 2021, the Department of Health’s budget has been cut by over $49M, and the Department of Corrections (Criminal Justice) budget has been slashed by over $254M. The number of public health nurses employed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has dropped 25% since 2012, even though the number of people needing care has increased.
“About 20% of our incarcerated – that’s 10,000 people – have mental illness,” said Gary Margulis, an RN at Norristown State Hospital. “They can’t always get the kind of intensive care and treatment they need in the prison system, so they end up in a cycle of being incarcerated. If we had more capacity in our state hospitals, we could get these individuals healthy enough to get back into their communities and holding jobs. Investing in public health isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the most cost-effective thing to do.”
Nurses say addressing the crisis will take a commitment at every level of government. They are hopeful that President Biden’s aggressive initiatives to beat COVID, including the creation of a Public Health Job Corps to mobilize 100,000 workers to help defeat the virus, will help provide resources. On the state level, they’re calling on Governor Wolf to publicly support these initiatives, as well as help mitigate the use of excessive mandatory overtime for state nurses. They will also hold the state legislature accountable to ending cuts to public health.
“I want to be clear,” continued Berezansky. “Nurses aren’t crying for ourselves, we’re crying for our patients. Knowing that people might be suffering and we could do more if only we had more nurses is really hard. We get into this work to help people, and we’ll never stop advocating.”