SACRAMENTO — After years of failed attempts and vociferous opposition, California lawmakers on Monday adopted a measure to grant nurse practitioners the ability to practice without doctor supervision — but only after making big concessions to the powerful doctors’ lobby, which nonetheless remains opposed.
The bill now heads to Gov. Gavin Newsom for consideration, fenced in by amendments that would stringently limit how much independence nurse practitioners — nurses with advanced training and degrees — can have to practice medicine.
Lawmakers credit these compromises, like them or not, for finally allowing them to push the issue over the finish line, capping years of political scrapping and perhaps one day altering the delivery of health care in California.
“This is not an intrusion on a hallowed profession, it’s a relief,” said state Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa), one of four Republican senators who voted for the bill. Moorlach said the measure would get more practitioners into underserved areas that don’t have enough doctors.
“It’s like the cavalry coming up over the hill to provide reinforcements to a tired army of wonderful and overworked doctors,” he said.
California is behind most other states in empowering nurse practitioners. If the bill becomes law, the state would join nearly 40 others to grant some level of independence to nurse practitioners; 22 grant full independence, according to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. California would have among the most restrictive policies on nurse practitioner independence in the country.
“I’m not going to say I regret any of these changes,” said Assembly member Jim Wood (D-Santa Rosa), who chairs the Assembly Health Committee and authored the bill, AB-890.
Wood opposed previous attempts to remove supervision requirements.
“I wish it could be a little less strict, quite frankly,” he said, adding that this was a reasonable compromise informed by his experiences as a dentist and what he learned from other providers.
Today, nurse practitioners must enter into a written agreement with a physician to oversee their work with patients. In exchange, physicians bill them between $5,000 and $15,000 per year, according to a report by the California Health Care Foundation and the University of California-San Francisco. (California Healthline is an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.)
“Where we are with the pandemic and the craziness of the world today, it highlights why there’s a need for this,” said Andrew Acosta, a spokesperson for the California Association for Nurse Practitioners. “The doctor shortage isn’t going away anytime soon.”
Under Wood’s measure, nurse practitioners would be able to see patients in their own practice, but only after working under physician supervision for at least three years. The bill also contains many other restrictions.
Nurse practitioners argue that the measure, even with its limitations, would ease primary care shortages, especially in rural areas — a problem the pandemic has made more stark.
Opponents, primarily the powerful California Medical Association, which is the doctors’ lobbying group, counter that stripping nurse practitioners of physician oversight would lead to a lower standard of care, and that nurse practitioners wouldn’t necessarily flock to rural areas once they’re free of physician supervision.
These arguments aren’t new in Sacramento, but lawmakers and lobbyists say this version of the bill succeeded because there are new leaders at the helm of influential legislative committees who were willing to make changes, and because the pandemic has changed health care.
“I think the legislature is starting to realize decades of evidence that nurse practitioners are safe, productive providers,” said Ed Hernandez, a former legislator who was termed out in 2018 and authored the last two failed bills. “I think the policy is finally overshadowing the politics” of the California Medical Association.
Still, the biggest difference this year is the bill itself. Hernandez’s bills, introduced in 2013 and 2015, were “clean” bills that granted independence to nurse practitioners without many requirements.
There’s nothing clean about Wood’s bill, which was heavily amended in the state Senate. Instead of simply lifting the supervision requirements on nurse practitioners, the measure imposes several hoops for nurse practitioners to jump through. Before they could practice independently, nurse practitioners would have to be certified by preapproved national nursing boards, and possibly complete additional California-specific testing if accredited out of state.
Once certified, they would have to practice under physician supervision for at least three years — up to six in some cases — before they could strike out on their own. And they would have to disclose to patients that they aren’t doctors.
The bill even prescribes a Spanish phrase for “nurse practitioner”: enfermera especializada. (Technically, this refers to a female nurse. The bill doesn’t provide the equivalent phrase for a male nurse.)
That’s not even all the amendments — and the measure wouldn’t take effect until 2023.
The requirements were inserted in response to criticism from the California Medical Association that nurse practitioners are not qualified to provide patient care without physician oversight, and that patients wouldn’t understand that they’re seeing someone with less training than a doctor, lawmakers said.
Despite the numerous amendments, the association remains opposed, saying the changes don’t address their fundamental concerns.
“We’ve increased the training required for physicians over the last couple years and now all of a sudden we’re allowing unsupervised providers to treat patients who have even less training,” said association spokesperson Anthony York.
Rounds of negotiations, major concessions and hourslong Zoom calls still could not get the doctors’ group on board, Wood said.
He said it was like chasing “goalposts that continue to move.”
“It’s very disappointing when you work with opposition and nothing is ever good enough,” Wood said. “CMA will never support this bill. They’ll never go neutral on it.”
York said that characterization is not accurate. He pointed to a different bill — SB-1237 — that would allow certified nurse midwives to attend to low-risk pregnancies without physician supervision. The association was initially opposed, but after negotiations and amendments to the bill, it changed its position to neutral. That bill is also headed to Newsom.
“You don’t have to look too far to find a case where we were willing to engage on a scope-of-practice issue,” York said.
David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University, called the association’s inability to kill Wood’s bill a political “watershed moment” for the group.
“Their M.O. for 70 years has been about blocking, stunting and preventing change,” McCuan said. “The deference toward the medical profession has changed. In that sense, it would be a momentous event if this is signed.”
Though the California Association for Nurse Practitioners is celebrating legislative passage of the measure, even in its amended form, it’s a different story at the national level. Sophia Thomas, president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, said in a statement that the bill is choked by too much red tape to provide any meaningful change.
“California’s so-called ‘solution,’ the flawed AB-890, would establish a cascading set of new restrictions on NP practice that would maintain California’s position among the most heavily regulated and restrictive in the nation,” Thomas said.
State Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), a pediatrician who chairs the Senate Health Committee, said he also opposed the bill, but not simply because he is a doctor or a member of the California Medical Association.
Yet many of his objections reflect those of the association, such as concerns about training and access to care in rural areas.
He also believes independence for nurse practitioners could exacerbate inequalities in the health care system, as people with less means see providers with less training.
“People with more resources are going to go with the person they think is more qualified. That’s just the way it tends to happen,” Pan said.
California Healthline’s Angela Hart contributed to this report.