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Nurses union questions watchdog’s motive in weighing ballot initiative

Question 1 would set limits on the numbers of patients assigned to nurses working in Massachusetts hospitals.
Question 1 would set limits on the numbers of patients assigned to nurses working in Massachusetts hospitals.PAT GREENHOUSE/Globe Staff

The labor union sponsoring a ballot question to regulate nurse staffing in hospitals is slamming the state Health Policy Commission and questioning its role as an independent watchdog as the agency prepares a report on the costs of the ballot measure.

In a letter sent late Tuesday, union officials accused the commission of having a bias in favor of hospitals, which are fighting the ballot question. They alleged that commission officials secretly discussed the ballot question with the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association — while misleading union officials and the public.

Officials at the Health Policy Commission disclosed Monday that they have been studying the ballot question for weeks and plan to release a report on Oct. 3.

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“The largest and most alarming concern is the complete lack of transparency in this process and the blatant effort to keep it hidden from proponents of Question 1 and other independent data researchers and sources,” ballot campaign director Eileen Norton said in a letter to the commission.

“This casts doubt on both the motive behind this cost analysis, the scientific integrity of the process, and any product that emerges from it.”

Union officials also submitted a public records request for a slew of documents about the commission’s conversations with hospital executives.

Health Policy Commission spokesman Matthew Kitsos said the agency has a responsibility to study factors that contribute to growth in health care costs — including the ballot question.

“The analysis, conducted with expert consultation, is fully consistent with the HPC’s statutory purpose and mission and is not intended to promote or oppose the pending ballot question but rather to add data-driven analysis to the policy discussion on this issue,” Kitsos said in an e-mail.

In mid-August, the commission hired as a consultant Joanne Spetz, a health care workforce expert at University of California San Francisco.

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Dan Cence, a spokesman for the hospital coalition fighting the ballot question, called the union’s statements “desperate” and said Question 1 would negatively affect the entire Massachusetts health care system.

“That’s a message the union doesn’t want out there, and they are trying everything they can to keep voters blind to the actual costs,” he said in a statement.

Question 1 would set limits on the numbers of patients assigned to nurses working in Massachusetts hospitals. The nurses union argues such limits are needed to ensure patient safety. Hospital executives say the ballot measure is too rigid and expensive.

The fact that the Health Policy Commission decided to study the ballot question could be a considered a win for hospitals, which have been requesting such an analysis for months. Hospital leaders have said the ballot measure would cost $1.3 billion in the first year and more than $900 million a year after that.

The nurses union estimates a much smaller annual cost, about $47 million.


Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.