Our Opinion: Ads on Question 1 raise more questions

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"In war, truth is the first casualty." That quotation, uttered 2,500 years ago by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, remains all too appropriate today — particularly when it comes to election season. Now that we have entered the traditional period between Labor Day and Election Day when voters in Massachusetts and elsewhere focus on political matters, the contradictory advertising campaigns mounted by organized nurses and the hospital industry over Question 1 on the Massachusetts ballot have moved to the forefront.

Both camps' order of battle over the question of mandated nurse staffing levels includes the use of identical heavy artillery, specifically images of nurses in uniform — a group whose opinions the general public is likely to respect regarding health matters — to launch salvos at one another as well as the voting public. In judging the issue, voters should be wary based on the appearance of scrubs in an ad.

An Eagle letter to the editor arguing in favor of Question 1, which would establish patient assignment limits for registered nurses working in hospitals, asserts that opponents are putting hospital executives in nurses' scrubs in their ads in order to mislead viewers. This is an apparent reference to a nurses' union claims that a PartnersHealth executive was featured wearing scrubs in a "No on Question 1" ad. At the time the ad was filmed, the nurse in question was an associate chief nursing officer at Southcoast Health who regularly wore scrubs when she was on the floor. She is no vice president of operations there. What is or is not management can be murky, but judging someone's status in a hospital by what they are wearing in an ad is perilous.

The confusion doesn't stop with sympathetic figures on both sides wearing scrubs and stethoscopes.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association, the union that would limit the number of patients that can be assigned to a single nurse, has created the "Committee to Ensure Safe Patient Care" as the moniker for its ballot campaign. The MNA's opponent, a coalition of Bay State hospitals, calls itself the "Coalition to Protect Patient Safety." In a further twist, the nurses advocating a "no" vote are the American Nurses Association of Massachusetts. For the voter, the wordplay only causes confusion.

Average citizens can be forgiven for being at a loss as to what a "Yes" or "No" vote on Question 1 will mean for the typical patient. The political messages bombarding voters on both sides demonstrates nothing but that both campaigns are well funded. Ads are just that — paid advocacy for a particular position — and what the public lacks, unfortunately, is the objective research that would uncover and present the pros and cons of both positions. The "studies" that have so far been cited have been paid for by each party, and their questionable findings, not surprisingly, favor the objectives of their respective underwriters.

Moreover, this miasma of contradictory information bordering on disinformation illustrates the absurdity of putting ballot questions before the general public that should best be left to experts working in tandem with the Legislature, where there is time and staffing to probe the legitimacy of opposing claims and separate the statistical wheat from the chaff. It is well known in the political arena that advertising is effective in swaying voter opinions, particularly if they hold none on a particular topic before being subjected to such an assault.

Since the MNA is responsible for placing Question 1 on the ballot, the onus is on that union to make a cogent, well-supported case for staffing limits that allows enough flexibility to differentiate between a Berkshire Medical Center and a Massachusetts General Hospital. BMC and its nurses recently settled a contract dispute that was largely centered around staffing issues, and while the process was lengthy and contentious, the MNA must explain why a referendum question that would take this discussion out of the hands of local hospitals and their nurses is preferable to that process.

We don't doubt that both parties are legitimately concerned about patient safety, but each are defending their own specific interests as well. This is why press releases, political ads and campaign events are unlikely to shed much light on the complexity of the question to come before voters. The news media will seek to separate truth from fiction and fact from hype, but as far as ad campaigns go, it is wise to watch both with a skeptical eye.



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