A question on the ballot this November could change the way health care is administered in Massachusetts. Question 1 would put legal caps on the number of patients assigned to one nurse. Those caps would vary based on the unit and level of care required: a nurse could have four pediatric patients at a time, for example, but only one patient at a time if that patient is under anesthesia.

Donna Kelly-Williams is a registered nurse at the Cambridge Hospital Birth Center and president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which is one of the primary proponents of Question 1. She joined Boston Public Radio to make the case for why she believes the cap on patients needs to exist.

Last week, MIT economist Jonathan Gruber joined the program to argue against the question, because he believes the health care system needs more flexibility to bring the cost of health care down. An hour-long radio debate featuring both sides of the ballot question will take place on Boston Public Radio later this fall, before Election Day.

"The whole purpose of having this is to ensure that when you do show up in an emergency room for care, not only will you be cared for a in a timely manner but the resources are there to care for you properly," Kelly-Williams said.

She pointed out that staffing limits for nurses already exist in intensive care. Nurses in ICUs can attend to a maximum of two patients at a time — a limit which came about in 2014, after a legislative compromise prevented a proposed initiative from coming to the ballot.

Kelly-Williams likened nurse staffing to staffing in day care centers.

"If you're taking a child to the daycare right now, there's a limit to the number of well children that could be cared for in a daycare setting," Kelly-Williams explained. "But if they got sick in that same child-care setting and came to the hospital, there's no limit to the number of sick children that would be taken care of by a registered nurse at one time."