There is an undeniable health-care workforce shortage facing America that has been caused in large part by the COVID-19 pandemic. Battling the infectious and virulent strains of the coronavirus while also confronting the daily reality of staffing shortages has resulted in burnout and a broad exodus from the healthcare profession. But the fact is, America was grappling with this issue even before the pandemic placed additional strains on the health-care system and exacerbated the worker shortage. Policymakers, public health professionals, and interest groups must now all come together to solve the workforce crisis before things get any worse.
Even maintaining the status quo has forced many healthcare facilities to operate in a financially untenable manner. By way of example, hospitals are hiring travel nurses to fill staffing gaps. These nurses who commute long distances or relocate from their immediate locations to farther hospitals can cost upwards of four times more than a staff nurse. Positions in North Dakota were advertised as paying $8,000 per week, and, in New York, the compensation was $10,000 or more per week. If such trends continue in the long term, it will bear disastrous consequences.
Recent developments in my own backyard demonstrate what is at stake. Over the last several months, two local hospitals closed their doors – in the wealthiest county in Pennsylvania. One of the now-closed hospitals was the only facility offering inpatient behavioral health services in the county and hospital emergency room services are no longer available for residents in the western and southern parts of Chester County. If this can happen in an affluent suburb of Philadelphia, it can happen anywhere. Rural and poorer areas that are at even greater risk of such hospital closures should take note.
To prevent similar scenarios from playing out across the country, we must prioritize more funding and resources for hospitals to boost their workforces. Yet, in the face of such risks, there are some in Congress pushing to rescind emergency health-care funding and to reallocate it for other legislative priorities. This would be a huge mistake.
Many hospitals have not yet even received their funds. Taking any financial resources away would result in even more hospital closures and dying patients. As of February 7th, the Department of Health and Human Services had only released $11 billion of the $17 billion of Phase 4 funding allocated as part of the Provider Relief Fund. Billions more dollars of targeted distributions also remain. In fact, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation found that as of December 2021, 38%, or $221 billion of funding for public health measures related to the pandemic had yet to be spent.
Although it is difficult to overstate how significantly the CARES Act funding helped shore up hospitals during the peak and now aftermath of the pandemic, such ad hoc support and one-time funding is but one part of the solution to the broader systemic issue.
We need more students in healthcare professions, most notably nurses, but there are not enough spaces in nursing schools to fulfill the need. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) reports that more than 80,000 qualified applicants were not accepted at schools of nursing largely because of shortages of faculty, clinical sites, and other supporting services. If we don’t find a way for to make more slots available at our nursing schools, our healthcare industry will never recover.
Mitigating the ways nursing unions have contributed to current labor shortages will also be important. Instead of collaborating with policymakers and hospital administrators to craft solutions to pressing issues during the pandemic, union leadership instead focused their resources on sowing discord. In 2021, there were 14 separate healthcare labor strikes, including at St. Vincent Hospital in Boston which lasted over 9 months and cost the hospital $40 million that could have otherwise been used to help support their workforce. No one disagrees that our healthcare heroes should be well-paid and provided the resources they need, but when the money simply doesn’t exist to meet union demands, care providers and their patients, unfortunately, are caught in the middle.
Working in the healthcare field has never been easy and our healthcare professionals and our hospitals deserve better. As fellow Americans, we should urge our government and private sector leaders to band together to better prioritize public support and funding for hospitals. A dedicated and capable healthcare workforce is what literally keeps us alive so it is important that we do everything we can to support them.