WHA’s December board meeting included some reflection on the association’s accomplishments in 2021, but quickly turned to a wide-ranging discussion of rising COVID-19 caseloads and the trend’s effect on hospital operations and staffing. Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) Deputy Secretary Deb Standridge joined the meeting to provide an update and receive input on strategies pursued by state officials to alleviate Wisconsin’s health care workforce shortage.
“We Walk in Your Shoes”
WHA President and CEO Eric Borgerding reported on the association’s performance against its annual plan, highlighting the permanent reauthorization of disproportionate share hospital funding in the state budget as a key achievement for WHA on behalf of its members in 2021. Other notable milestones included in WHA’s outcomes update relate to long-standing challenges that were exacerbated by COVID-19.
“COVID has exposed weaknesses in the state’s public health system that Wisconsin’s hospitals have had no choice but to fill,” Borgerding noted. For example, hospitals are currently boarding an estimated 600 patients across the state who no longer require hospital care but cannot or will not be accepted by skilled nursing homes or other long-term care facilities.
While COVID-19 has maintained a dominant presence in the state longer than what was hoped at the beginning of the year, WHA was able to pivot as needed to support its members’ pandemic response while not abandoning the association’s stated goals, Borgerding reflected. WHA’s direct outreach to the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services to expedite more than 200 health care licenses to ease its members’ workforce challenges is but one of many unplanned initiatives WHA put in motion in response to the extraordinary demands on hospitals over the past two years.
“When you reach out to us for help, that becomes our top priority,” Borgerding said. “We walk in your shoes. And that is why we are responsive to your needs 24/7.”
Borgerding noted that no other industry has undergone the challenges faced by health care providers throughout the pandemic and remained as calm and focused as WHA’s members.
State and Federal Levers
Deputy Secretary Standridge shared details of state programs intended to alleviate pressure on the state’s health care workforce. To date, 409 staff have been deployed to Wisconsin hospitals and skilled nursing facilities as part of the master contract DHS has negotiated with 12 staffing agencies. While the state staffing contracts have been helpful, WHA members have noticed an increasing trend in which agency staff are being drawn from local communities. This new phenomenon is leading to wage inflation and could have a lasting impact on the industry, WHA members observed.
Standridge also provided an update on negotiations with federal officials for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance in hospitals. Standridge explained DHS is looking for a regional solution to the current situation that does not require patients to receive care far from their homes.
Standridge thanked hospital leaders and their staff for their responsiveness to the FEMA paperwork and interview requests as negotiations for federal assistance continue.
Standridge outlined a number of options, including some that draw upon National Guard staff, to help “decompress” the post-acute WHA’s Board of Directors meeting, Dec. 16, 2021 discharge bottleneck. The challenge isn’t so much about finding space as it is finding the necessary staff to implement any of the models the state is exploring to ease this burden. Whether nursing home space or available hospital space is freed up for patients awaiting transfers to long-term care facilities, registered nurses will be needed to oversee certified nursing assistants that may be recruited and/or trained up for these positions.
Sounding the Alarm
Following Deputy Secretary Standridge’s report, WHA board members turned their attention to the rising COVID-19 crisis at hand, which, combined with beds occupied by patients awaiting post-acute care facility transfers, has stretched many hospitals across the state to their limits. Board members agreed that awareness of the dire situation in hospitals is not what it should be among the public and that collective action is needed, again, to fight COVID spread and educate Wisconsinites about the very real threat of delayed regular care.
Borgerding shared details of a multi-front, collaborative communications strategy WHA has developed to leverage the media, business leaders and policymakers to change perceptions and spur the necessary action (i.e., vaccination and virus mitigation practices) to ensure that communities throughout the state continue to receive the care patients have come to expect from their hospitals. Board members enthusiastically agreed to engage with WHA on this urgent plan, which is already in motion.