Calls to support Connecticut’s healthcare professionals continue to rise after the latest COVID variant put increased stress on state nurses, doctors, behavioral specialists and other medical staff.
Proponents and legislators say programs they have long pushed for – training the workforce, forgiving medical loans, higher nurse-to-patient ratios, simpler license transfers from other states and medical liability insurance reform, to name a few – everyone on the table is heading into the Connecticut General Assembly’s regular session, which begins Feb. 9.
Fallout from the pandemic, which has depleted staff and depleted resources across the state health sector, may drive the change they have been seeking.
Late. Heather Somers, R-Groton, executive member of the Public Health Committee, said she has spent six years drumming for the state to increase recruitment and retention efforts for nurses, doctors, certified nurses and other physicians.
“It’s been a bit down for deaf ears so far,” Somers said.
The situation has become more urgent.
The governor’s labor force council estimated that the state’s annual demand for health care labor has peaked at 7,000, “with significant shortages of nursing, certified nurses, qualified technician roles, and long-term health care and home care.” But since the start of the pandemic, the number of people employed in Connecticut’s education and health care sector has dropped by 14,500.
“The ones we have in the healthcare field are so burnt out,” Somers said.
Charese Chery, human resources manager at Oak Hill, which runs group homes and classes for people with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities, sees it firsthand.
“The effects of the pandemic have been severe. We have not been able to fill our positions and we have a crisis on our hands,” Chery said recently on the Metro Hartford Alliance podcast, “Pulse of the Region.”
Oak Hill typically employs a nationwide staff of about 1,300, but during the pandemic, it has been difficult to maintain those numbers. “One day I looked at the job advertisement, and we were up to 200 unemployed. I almost fell out of the chair, ”Chery said.
Doctors say the situation will only get worse given the imminent wave of retirements among the Baby Boomer generation. Not only will it exhaust the ranks in the medical field, but these retirees will also need medical attention.
According to a report by the Connecticut Data Collaborative and Center for Nursing Workforce, the number of nurses in the state aged 60 or over, 7,917, is currently nearly double the number of those under 30.
Sherri Dayton, a registered nurse at the Plainfield Emergency Care Center, said: “We need to make this field more appealing. Right now, in the midst of a pandemic, it is not very appealing.”
Dayton, who represents the health department in the Connecticut chapter of the AFT Union, said one way to ease the burden on nurses is to impose higher nurse-to-patient ratios in the state.
“Healthcare professionals are not allowed to have any work-life balance right now,” she said.
Relief on the road?
State and industry leaders have put forward some programs to provide emergency assistance to the medical workforce during the pandemic. Last fall, the governor signed an executive order allowing the certification of “temporary nurses” who had completed an 8-hour online course. Earlier this year, the state designated $ 70 million in federal American Rescue Plan Funding for short-term training programs in several sectors, including health care. Hartford HealthCare and Quinnipiac University recently announced a partnership to train future healthcare professionals; as part of the partnership, Hartford HealthCare will donate $ 5 million to the university to support the program.
And on a recent visit to Torrington, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Outlined his efforts to secure federal funding for the development of the health and public health workforce.
“We’re trying to stack a pipeline of young people, people who are shifting from one career to the next, so we can make sure we fill that gap right now that we know we have,” Murphy said.
Incentives to stay
Training highly qualified doctors as nurses and doctors takes years – there is no quick fix. And once trained, there is no guarantee that they will stay in Connecticut. According to the Connecticut State Medical Society, the state retains only about one-third of the residents and fellows who train here – well below the national median of 45%.
A proposal made during last year’s legislative meeting sought to establish a subsidy program for local health centers that could be used as a retention incentive to provide loan repayments to doctors, nurses and mental health providers. The bill, which also included additional recruitment, retention and reimbursement programs targeted specifically at mental health specialists, was not passed.
Two existing Connecticut programs aimed at recruiting and retaining nurses and other providers of primary care staff through loan waivers have become unfunded. Meanwhile, dozens of other states offer a variety of scholarship, repayment, loan and forgiveness programs.
“We compete with all other states for health care professionals,” the rep said. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, Co-Chair of the Public Health Committee. “We have the added challenge of being a state with high cost of living.”
At a recent panel organized by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, the rep said. Kerry Wood, D-Rocky Hill, “Connecticut is not a very business-friendly state for those entering the medical field.” Student loan assistance is critical, she said, “especially for the skilled workforce we desperately need.”
Rep. Terrie Wood, R-Darien, who also spoke on the panel, highlighted the issue of delays in health licenses. One of her constituents, a nurse, recently had trouble getting her driver’s license transferred to Connecticut.
“It should not have happened,” Wood said. “A person who is a highly qualified nurse does not have to wait two months for his certification approval and license to practice in Connecticut.”
According to the Center for Nursing Workforce survey, only about half practice in the state among Connecticut’s 86,483 licensed nurses.
Movement on mental health
Legislators’ efforts have already begun with several proposals aimed at mental health services. Last week, the state Republican Party presented its priorities on the issue, including increased access to mental health care; support for the mental workforce; addressing the “adolescent mental health crisis” and improving screening and support for mothers’ mental health.
But, Somers said, “We will not allow them to forget that we also need doctors.” Mental health services are one of many things that the Public Health Committee will look at this session, she said.
“When you talk to pediatricians, when you talk to primary care, they’re dealing with people with mental and behavioral issues,” Somers said. “It must be all hands on deck to look at the most critical aspects of healthcare, with a primary focus on behavioral health and mental health and a commitment to moving the needle in the right direction.”
Steinberg said additional federal funding from the U.S. rescue plan and other pandemic emergency legislation provides an opportunity to make “comprehensive” proposals for rehabilitating the state’s health safety net.
“Children’s mental health is at the forefront of the problem,” he said.