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Nursing home staffing will get a closer look

At first glance, the buzz at Gov. Ted Kulongoski's news conference this week at the Hollywood Senior Center was that a new commission would look at staffing levels in Oregon nursing homes.

But what won't occur as a result of the governor's announcement is at least as interesting as what will.

Local 53 of the Service Employees International Union had been gathering signatures as chief sponsor of Ballot Measure 105, the Nursing Home Resident Safety Act. The act would have done exactly what the governor's new commission might do - require more nurses and nursing assistants on each shift at nursing homes.

Kulongoski said this week that enough signatures had been collected to put the measure on the November ballot and let Oregon voters decide the issue. But the union and its ally, Oregonians for Nursing Home Safety, a group made up of nursing home workers, decided to drop the ballot measure in favor of a more cooperative approach - the governor's new Nursing Home Patient Safety Commission, the governor and SEIU officials said.

The commission has 90 days to make recommendations to the governor and the 2007 Legislature. The governor promised to introduce legislation in the next session 'to improve Oregon's long-term care system for patients and their families.'

The nine-member commission will include members from various sides of the issue - nurses and nursing home operators as well as legislators and a representative from the governor's office. And the point, both sides say, is compromise.

Charlie Burr, spokesman for the governor, said that passage of Measure 105 would have meant nursing home operators would have had to pay approximately $100 million in added payroll costs for the extra nurses and assistants the measure required.

The additional costs to implement the proposed measure were only one of the financial concerns involved, Burr said.

'This is a much better way to go than a ballot measure process,' Burr said of the commission. 'These ballot measure fights are bruising fights that cost millions of dollars.'

Leslie Frane, executive director of the union, said she is confident that the commission will yield real change and that the union accomplished its goal even though the ballot measure has been dropped.

'We believe our members were successful in getting the key players to the table to have a real conversation on this issue,' Frane said. 'This would never have happened but for the work our members did gathering signatures and publicizing this urgent problem.'