Taking place amidst a dramatic downturn in COVID-19 hospitalizations, WHA’s virtual February board meeting included equal parts reflection and future planning. The three-month period since the last board meeting in December included the most intense period of the pandemic to date, with COVID-19 hospitalizations reaching an all-time high at a time when the state’s health care workforce was both exhausted and depleted from repeated virus surges and pent-up demand for health care services.
Wisconsin’s Health Care Workforce Reaches a Tipping Point
WHA Senior Vice President of Workforce and Clinical Practice Ann Zenk provided a preview of the 2022 Wisconsin Health Care Workforce Report scheduled for publication in March. The report will reaffirm demographic trends that pose challenges for the state’s health care employers—namely, increased retirements among health care workers as well as rising demand for age-related health care services. Overlaid upon these long-term trends linked to an aging population, according to Zenk, was a “sudden and acute” workforce shortage caused by recurring surges of COVID-19 and worker retirements and departures fueled by pandemic fatigue in 2021.
Zenk outlined recent public policy initiatives WHA has pursued to help its members maximize their available workforce, including supporting the American Hospital Association’s appeal to the Biden administration
and Federal Trade Commission to take action against opportunistic staffing agency fees that have more than doubled in some areas. WHA has also shared suggestions with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS)
to address health care worker poaching, such as adding language to temporary employee contracts stipulating that traveling staff hired must be non-residents of Wisconsin. And WHA asked members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation to sign onto a letter
requesting the Biden administration investigate traveling nursing agency anticompetitive practices. Reps. Glenn Grothman and Ron Kind added their names to the request.
Recommendations for sustaining and strengthening Wisconsin’s dedicated and talented health care workforce included in WHA’s 2022 report will be refined based on feedback from board members.
Productive Political Engagement
WHA Senior Vice President of Government Relations Kyle O’Brien updated the board on various pieces of legislation impacting hospitals and health systems in the Legislature, including a recent proposal WHA opposes that would circumvent medical staff credentialing processes. O’Brien also discussed the introduction of legislation
now being considered in the state Legislature that would make threats of violence against health care workers a felony in Wisconsin. O’Brien stated that the bill was receiving a hearing in Senate committee later that morning and was expected to pass the full Assembly on Feb. 23.
On the federal front, WHA Vice President of State and Federal Relations Jon Hoelter explained that Congress’ attention has turned to funding the government, now that the Build Back Better plan is ostensibly dead. Through briefings to Wisconsin’s congressional delegation from WHA leadership and member CEOs, WHA continues to stress the need for federal support for hospitals and health systems operating under extreme strain from a pandemic now entering its third year. The Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee recently unveiled a discussion draft related to pandemic preparedness, and WHA encouraged the committee in a recent comment letter to put a greater emphasis on how federal preparedness efforts impact hospitals and health systems, which have been the backbone of the COVID-19 response. Hoelter also encouraged WHA board members to join WHA for the annual American Hospital Association member meeting in Washington, D.C., on April 25 and 26, which will once again be in-person this year.
Rising to the Moment
Responding to an urgent call for crisis messaging and action by member leaders in WHA’s December board meeting, WHA President and CEO Eric Borgerding provided a recap of WHA’s recent concentrated efforts to address capacity challenges brought on by the Omicron-fueled winter COVID-19 surge. In addition to providing a playbook to its members for enlisting the business community’s help in combatting virus spread and stepping up its own paid and earned media messaging efforts, WHA leveraged its government relationships to effect rapid short-term staffing solutions to address workforce shortages and bottlenecks in the continuum of care.
WHA worked closely with DHS Deputy Secretary Deb Standridge to support Wisconsin’s request for regional federal health care team deployment. Ultimately, the Biden administration supplied one team of military health care personnel to a single Wisconsin location—Bellin Health—short of the five teams requested. WHA’s coordination with DHS on a second state staffing contract and with the University of Wisconsin System on a $500 tuition credit for UW students working in certain health care facilities are additional examples of quick-response workforce initiatives WHA pursued on behalf of members. A “decompression” strategy implemented by DHS that provided expedited nurse aide training to members of the Wisconsin National Guard and deployment of those service members to a number of skilled nursing homes throughout the state to help increase the capacity of those facilities to accept patients ready for discharge from hospitals is another strategy that benefited from WHA’s involvement and direction.
Looking ahead, Borgerding summarized WHA’s goals for 2022, which are drafted by WHA staff based in response to ongoing and emerging challenges and rely heavily upon member input. Major themes running through WHA’s goals, Borgerding noted, revolve around the need for long-term care reform, health care workforce development and public health improvements. Board members approved the goals document on a unanimous vote. Borgerding concluded by outlining the process that will be used for creating the association’s next three-year strategic plan.