Gov. Kotek signs abortion and hospital staffing bills

Gov. Tina Kotek on Tuesday joined advocates to celebrate the state’s push to strengthen abortion access and enact minimum nurse staffing standards for hospitals.

At a ceremonial bill signing, Kotek signed two health care bills. The first was House Bill 2002, which shores up abortion rights and access to transgender health care. The bill was central to the six-week walkout of GOP senators in the Oregon Senate this session. The other bill was House Bill 2697, which puts minimum nurse staffing standards in place for hospitals. 

House Bill 2002 was Oregon’s response to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade last year and makes Oregon one of the states with the strongest reproductive health care rights in the nation. Conservative and Republican-dominated states have passed abortion restrictions as the front lines of the battle for reproductive health care access moved from the U.S. Supreme Court to statehouses across the country.

“A patchwork of abortion bans across the country has put people’s lives in danger and caused disproportionate harm to individuals who have limited income or come from marginalized communities,” Kotek said. “Oregon is not immune from these attacks. Neighboring states are banning and criminalizing essential health care, threatening patients and providers, cutting off access to care in rural communities and targeting access to lifesaving health care for transgender and non-binary individuals.”

The legislation was watered down to end the walkout. Democrats dialed back a provision that would allow anyone to obtain an abortion without parental approval. Under the new law, providers can waive the need for parental consent for children younger than 15 if they deem that child would be harmed by informing the parents.

Despite the compromise, the mood was cheery, as advocates and lawmakers crowded around Kotek as she picked up her pen. The ceremonial bill signing was a celebration, not the official bill signing. Kotek legally signed the measure on July 13. 

Glynis Flanigan, a clinician at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Salem, praised the bill. Flanigan said she’s “proud to live in a state” that protects providers. 

“The harassment of providers in health centers is skyrocketing across the country,” Flanigan said.

Seth Johnstone, transgender justice program manager with advocacy group Basic Rights Oregon, said the bill will help thousands of transgender Oregonians access the care they need.

“Today we can say with confidence that trans people belong in Oregon,” he said.

 Allison Seymour, secretary of the Oregon Nurses Association sits next to Gov. Tina Kotek for a ceremonial signing for House Bill 2697, which puts minimum nurse staffing standards in place for hospitals. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Nurse staffing law

House Bill 2697 sets a minimum nurse-to-patient ratio for hospitals.

The bill comes after negotiations between the hospital industry and unions for health care workers. It’s also on the heels of the pandemic, which left nurses exhausted and burned out.

Under the bill, nurse-to-staff ratios are based on a variety of factors, such as the type of unit in the hospital and the acuity of patients. The measure is intended to set a minimum, and unions can negotiate better standards from there. 

The bill provides more than just meal breaks and working conditions for nurses. The quality of patient care is also a factor when nurse staffing standards aren’t high – and lives are on the line. 

Allison Seymour, secretary of the 16,000-member Oregon Nurses Association, said she left her hospital job as a registered nurse in 2022 and faced hardship with low staffing. With the law in place, she’d like to return to the hospital.

“I saw a patient not get fed due to poor staffing,” she said in an interview. “I saw patients sit in soiled linen.”

As a nurse, Seymour said she often was the only one patients relied upon as they descended to the precipice of death and fought for their lives.

“I had terrifying moments where I’m in a room with a patient that cannot breathe, and I have another one down the hall and I’m the only lifeline for that person because of poor staffing,” she said.

The new law, which Kotek signed July 31, puts financial penalties in place for hospitals that don’t comply. 

Becky Hultberg, president and chief executive officer of  Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, said the measure is a good compromise. It also comes after the pandemic, which quickly showed how the challenges the workforce faces.

“Like an earthquake, it destabilized our workforce,” Hultberg said.

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Ben Botkin - Oregon Capital Chronicle

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.