Nurses in UK on the Verge of National Staffing Legislation

nurse protest

By Geri Katz

Geri Katz
Geri Katz
MNA Healthcare Reform Specialist

 MNA Healthcare Reform Specialist

In the lead-up to tomorrow’s June 8 election in the United Kingdom, the Labour Party has pledged to nurses of the National Health Service to:

Two things about this remarkable pledge are worth noting for MNA nurses:

  1. This is what political power looks like.
  2. In a single payer healthcare system, the government has the leverage to make reforms to standards of care and working conditions across the country.

MNA members often ask leaders “why does MNA engage in politics?” This is why. This is what real political power looks like: a major political party pledging nationwide reforms demanded by bedside nurses. Can you imagine if a major party came to the 20,000 nurses of MNA and pledged something like this? Concrete, measurable promises are few and far between in electoral politics. When most of us demand our elected officials pass a law to solve a problem, we tend to get wishy-washy answers (or outright rejection) from all but our strongest supporters.

A recent poll shows that the Labour party is within 3% of the Conservative party (who had a huge lead just a few weeks ago), so these pledges have a very good chance of becoming a reality for NHS nurses. Imagine what that victory would feel like; not just the policy promises, but the respect that comes with them. A major party with a good chance of taking control of an industrialized nation believes and respects nurses enough to pledge meaningful reforms to the healthcare system. What would that feel like here?

But even if Labour doesn’t win the election, this pledge is a huge accomplishment for NHS nurses. It shows they are a respected political force. As we know all too well, making these kind of sweeping reforms is usually a marathon, not a sprint. One part of the marathon is building your group’s credibility and political power, and that takes time and a lot of grassroots work. If this year isn’t the year for NHS nurses, they have still built something by speaking up and demanding better for nurses and patients.

If we imagine the scenario of a major party coming to MNA saying “we pledge safe staffing, increased pay and de-privatization” would that pledge have much weight? In the fragmented, for-profit healthcare system we have today, not much. Yes, the government can mandate staffing levels (as they’ve done in California) but the only jurisdiction they have over healthcare workers’ pay is for those who work in public facilities, which is a small percentage of MNA membership and of Minnesota healthcare facilities. Privatization of public healthcare assets is another area where the government has much less leverage, which is why we’ve seen so many public hospitals gobbled up by big chains in the last several years.

But in the UK, they have a system in which the government is the only payer for healthcare services, giving them the ultimate leverage over healthcare delivery and workforce issues. In a single payer system, the government ideally negotiates with healthcare providers and facilities to set the standards, including costs for care delivery and safety regulations.

While the plan MNA and NNU supports to fix our healthcare system would have healthcare privately delivered (rather than providers being employees of the government as they are in England) there is still an enormous amount of leverage the government could have to mandate safety measures and control costs. When there is only one entity paying the bills to providers, that not only simplifies the financing of healthcare and eliminates a lot of waste, it also gives the democratically-elected government the ultimate negotiating advantage. Imagine if we in the US could directly elect the people who negotiate how healthcare is delivered and paid for in the United States, instead of having decisions made by Insurance company and pharma CEOs making billions, profiting off of denying care to sick people?

The nurses in the UK are showing us the way. They’re not waiting for a leader to save them; they are rising up and demanding respect and reforms for themselves and their patients. This is the way to make the change we want and need.