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In 2022 session, hospitals, providers seek workforce solutions

The shortage of nurses and other health care professionals because of the pandemic has led Maryland health care leaders to propose a variety of responses. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Maryland’s hospitals and health care providers, overburdened by the impact of the pandemic, are looking to legislators for solutions and support in the 2022 General Assembly session.

They are especially hoping to find answers to an ongoing workforce shortage, which is affecting a broad range of industries nationwide but has especially affected health care providers as it coincides with the other pressures of the pandemic.

That’s why the state’s health care industry is hoping legislators will take steps to increase the number of nurses, physicians and other medical professionals working in the state. Proposed solutions run the gamut from expanding who is legally allowed to work in health care in Maryland to incentivizing doctors to set up shop in the state’s most underserved areas.

One piece of legislation aims to extend emergency orders put in place by Gov. Larry Hogan earlier in the pandemic that allowed hospitals flexibility in who can serve as nurses and in other clinical capacities. These measures let hospitals utilize students studying to be medical professionals and professionals with out-of-state licenses to supplement their struggling staffs.

The bill, according to the Maryland Hospital Association’s Nicole Stallings, will make it so that, during certain health emergencies, the state’s health secretary would have the option to implement similar measures without the state having to go into a broader state of emergency.

“I think the bottom line here is we need to maximize every available resource that we have in the state, because we are in the midst of an emergency,” said Stallings, MHA’s chief external affairs officer and senior vice president for government affairs and policy.

‘Important’ legislation

Another bill looks to make permanent Maryland’s inclusion in the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact, an agreement that allows physicians licensed in one state to easily and quickly become licensed in any other state in the compact. Maryland passed legislation to join the compact on a temporary basis in 2019; the Maryland State Medical Society, also known as MedChi, a professional association for doctors, is hoping to make the state’s inclusion permanent in 2022, before the previous legislation sunsets in July.

“We create incredible medical minds’ at Maryland’s medical schools,” says MedChi CEO Gene Ransom. “But we lose a lot of those minds to other states.”

According to Gene Ransom, CEO of MedChi, being in the compact means a doctor coming to work in Maryland can become licensed weeks or months faster than they would otherwise be able to. It also makes it easier for hospitals with multi-state operations, like Kaiser Permanente and Johns Hopkins, to bring in out-of-state physicians to address shortages or other needs.

“It’s a really important piece of legislation,” Ransom said. “Hundreds of doctors have used it during the period that it’s been enacted.”

On top of implementing measures that broaden who can work in the state, lobbyists say attracting medical professionals to work in Maryland’s communities is also vital.

“We create incredible medical minds” at Maryland’s medical schools, Ransom said. “But we lose a lot of those minds to other states.”

That’s why he and other lobbyists are looking to reformations to the state’s medical student loan repayment program to attract primary care physicians and physician’s assistants to the state.

This initiative, which is supported by both the MHA and MedChi, will seek funding from the state’s general fund for the Maryland Loan Assistance Repayment Program. Currently, the program, which repays the student loans of doctors working for underserved communities, is running out of funding, according to Stallings. Advocates are hoping to establish a permanent funding structure for the program and to see the program included in this year’s budget.

Retention bonuses

MHA is also hoping that a pool of funds for professional development and retention bonuses for health care professionals will be included in the governor’s budget. Bonuses and professional development opportunities can encourage health care professionals to stay employed at hospitals and other care providers in the state, rather than leave their positions to work in other states, work for health care staffing firms or leave health care altogether.

“We need to build up our workforce pipeline,” she said. “There’s a historic budget surplus, and we need help to address our historic workforce shortages, so we are advocating for funding to recruit and retain health care workers into Maryland.”

Hospitals also hope that the legislature will pass measures to stop nursing agencies, which provide hospitals nationwide with short-term travel nurses to fill in during staffing shortages, from price gouging. Over the past year, hospital leadership claims, these agencies have been taking advantage of the pandemic to charge hospitals unusually high rates to contract their nurses.

Sen. Clarence Lam, D-Baltimore and Howard, is planning broader legislation related to price gouging during emergencies but hopes to address hospitals’ concerns in the bill.

“We are seeing, now, that it’s very difficult to find health care personnel to work in our health care systems and hospitals. It has become exorbitantly expensive, sometimes,” Lam said. “Hospitals are feeling the pinch.”

Workforce shortages have been a top challenge for the health care industry since even before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has placed the issue in stark relief as understaffed hospitals struggle to deal with high volumes of patients infected with the virus, especially during surges, like the current spike in cases caused by the omicron variants of the coronavirus.

Ultimately, Stallings said, the state’s hospitals are open to suggestions beyond what they’ve already come up with as they continue to deal with the worst COVID-19 surge since the pandemic’s onset.

“I expect workforce will be the primary priority for other provider associations,” she said. “MHA is considering any and all proposals to address these across-the-board shortages that we’re facing.”