Apr. 13—From the launch of a staffing agency, development of a scholar's program and working with a college to educate future caregivers, local health care providers found creative solutions to combat a persistent nursing shortage — but more help is needed.
The lack of nurses affects every aspect of the health care industry. But as senior citizens comprise a larger portion of the area's population and new mandates place bigger burdens on nursing homes, those facilities will feel the shortage more acutely, said Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association.
"There have been so many barriers standing in the way of potential workers coming to long-term care over the years," Shamberg said. "We need to be creative and find new solutions for building our workforce pipeline because right now it's a very shallow pool and that doesn't bode well for our aging population."
'Lots of needs'
Allied Services launched its own staffing agency a year ago to attract nurses.
Integrated Staffing offers qualified nurses no-contract, temporary assignments at higher pay rates: up to $70 and hour for registered nurses, $50 an hour for licensed practical nurses and $30 an hour for certified nursing assistants.
Allied Services hired 39 staff members through the agency, including nine who will join the staff by May 1.
Workers from Integrated Staffing fulfilled 1,117 clinical hours in the last two-week pay period. That equates to 14 full-time employees, said Jim Brogna, vice president for strategic partnership development at Allied. He added the Integrated staff worked roughly 16,327 hours during the first year.
"I don't know where we would be if we didn't pull this staffing agency together," Brogna said. "Our leadership came to this idea out of a very long-standing challenge where traditional staffing agencies around the state wouldn't respond or the price was so astronomical that we couldn't afford the staff."
Other health care providers have also thought creatively to address the nursing shortage.
Geisinger started an educational program to encourage employees to pursue a nursing career amid the nursing shortage. The Geisinger Nursing Scholars Program provides employees with an easier path toward a nursing career to help fill the void created by retirees.
"We wanted to invest in our own employees," said Janet Tomcavage, chief nursing executive for Geisinger. "Enrollment is back up at nursing schools, but the number of graduates continues to not be enough to support the vacancies. We've shrunk the gap of nurses needed, but still have lots of needs."
The program provides up to $40,000 for employees who have worked for at least six months to go back to nursing school, Tomcavage said. In addition to training to become registered nurses, participants can become licensed practical nurses, surgical technicians and certified medical assistants.
About 50 people have enrolled in the program this year and Tomcavage expects the number to increase.
Commonwealth Health joined forces with Jersey College to create a nursing school at Moses Taylor, which welcomed its first class of 30 students in January.
Greg Karzhevsky, chancellor of Jersey College, is optimistic about the future of the program.
"There is quite a demand from students to become nurses," he said. "We believe, over the next years as we start graduating students, we'll definitely be increasing the pool of nurses in the community."
The future nurses receive hands-on instruction while working side by side with staff from Moses Taylor Hospital.
"The relationship gives our students the opportunity to have hands-on clinical experience with patients," Karzhevsky said.
Students enroll in classes three times per year — January, May and late August/early September — and there was a "tremendous" waiting list for May, he said.
While Brogna recognizes the critical impact Integrated Staffing has on Allied, he said the model isn't built to last.
"Any skilled nursing or long-term care (facility) would prefer to not have to pay agency staffing because it's an unsustainable formula, but our goal is to serve the needs of our patients and residents," he said.
Plus, the demand for nurses is projected to keep growing in the coming decades, especially at nursing homes.
"Pennsylvania's fastest growing demographic is ages 85 and older and that population is expected to double by the year 2040," Shamberg said. "We need to ensure we're able to care for our senior citizens, not just today but in the years to come."
Staffing mandates will increase the pressure on nursing homes, too.
The state's mandatory staffing ratio for long-term care facilities will increase from 2.7 hours of care per patient each day to 2.87 in July — and then 3.2 in July 2024.
A proposed federal staffing mandate — which would require nursing homes to provide 4.1 hours of care to each patient per day — could be devastating, Shamberg added.
"It would almost certainly lead to the collapse of long-term care in the United States," he said.
The Medicaid reimbursement rate for long-term care and skilled nursing providers was increased effective Jan. 1, the first time since 2014 More financial assistance is needed in the coming years to properly staff health care facilities, Brogna said.
Inadequate reimbursement rates during the last decade also make it difficult for long-term care facilities to compete with employees with hospitals and companies like Walmart, Shamberg said.
"The patients and residents have greater challenges than ever," Brogna said. "We need to be able to match that with the highest quality competency in staffing and that's driven by the reimbursement rates."
This article first appeared in The Times-Tribune and was republished by Yahoo! News.