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Nurses in legislature question whether governor’s push for staffing will pay off

Nurses who serve in the Legislature are questioning whether Gov. Jim Justice’s plans to bolster nursing education programs will help with the current, urgent need for medical staffing.

Hospitals leaders have said capacity is reaching urgent levels through a combination of the delta strain of covid-19, seasonal flu and acute health concerns for many patients who put off care earlier. They are worried about whether there is enough staff to treat all those patients, particularly if the situation extends or gets worse.

Governor Justice this week announced devoting $48 million of federal funding to training, recruiting and retaining nurses. Much of the emphasis was on support for nursing training programs at Concord University, Glenville State College and BridgeValley Community & Technical College.

The goal of the new initiative is to produce more than 2,000 nurses in West Virginia over the next four years, state officials said.

Amy Summers

House Majority Leader Amy Summers questioned whether that long-term goal meets the critical need of the moment. The emphasis, Summers suggested, should be on retaining West Virginia’s current nursing force.

“While investing in the future of healthcare education is always appreciated, this will not help the current crisis,” said Summers, R-Taylor. “I was hoping to hear something a bit more strategic and novel that included the ideas of the current bedside nurses. How can we keep them (us) a while longer? That, I suppose, would have required asking us.”

Summers, who has made a career as an emergency room nurse, made clear that the Governor’s Office had not called for her advice prior to last week’s announcement.

Summers has plenty of questions. Of the 34,000 registered nurses in West Virginia, she said, only about half are active in healthcare. “How could we draw them back in immediately?” she asked. Could thousands of nurse practitioners work at the bedside? “Could hospitals provide them a refresher course on these units and get shifts covered?”

Another delegate, Heather Glasko-Tully, also expressed concern about an emphasis on recruitment rather than retention. Glasko-Tully, R-Nicholas, is also a nurse.

“You can educate a million nurses, but if you can’t retain them within the borders are your dollars put toward education really serving the purposes for the residents and patients of West Virginia? Why are we focusing on pulling people in from other areas when we really need to focus on the work environment that might help us retain the workforce that is here in West Virginia now?” asked Glasko-Tully.

“Education is only a small piece of that. The retention element is the larger piece of the puzzle.”

But she acknowledged that retention is a challenging, complicated issue. Many with flexibility have opted to become travel nurses. And Glasko-Tully said a feeling of being stretched thin has led many of her peers to leave the profession. Addressing those issues will require introspection and hard conversations among medical providers, she said.

Like Summers, Glasko-Tully suggested her insight might have been helpful to the Governor’s Office.

“You have two nurse leaders in the House of Delegates, and it would have been nice if the governor’s staff had decided to consult us,” Glasko-Tully said.

“We’ve actually touched patients throughout the pandemic. So you have practicing professionals who are elected leaders who probably should have been included as part of those conversations.”

Leaders of the West Virginia Nurses Association expressed similar concerns to state media organizations, saying an earlier request of $200,000 to help nurses with paid leave was ignored.

“Our issue is not the fact that we need to continue to [train] nurses and create programs to create nurses,”  Julie Huron, the group’s executive director, told Mountain State Spotlight. “We need to do something to show nurses we have their back right now.”

The $48 million aimed at training nurses helps over the long run,” Joyce Wilson, president of the nurses association, told WOWK-TV. 

“But that’s not going to help the situation right now. So we felt like we should’ve been asked and we also felt hurt that we had asked for CARES money to help nurses on the front line and we couldn’t get it,” she said.

Secretary Bill Crouch

Bill Crouch, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources, responded to concerns about the nursing proposal’s immediacy when questioned by WOWK reporter Erin Noon during a briefing last week.

Crouch made reference to $58 million already aimed at supporting hospitals through the earlier-announced “Save Our Care” program. He described an examination of whether nursing students could emerge from school sooner to provide more immediate relief. And he discussed support efforts by the National Guard, as well as a possible incentive program to bring back retired nurses.

Crouch acknowledged that the staffing issue is complicated.

“We’re still looking at the staffing issue. We’re all competing for the same staff. We’re competing against nursing homes. Nursing homes are competing against hospitals. Our state facilities are competing with hospitals and nursing homes. And we’re competing with other states and out-of-state entities that may be paying more than we’re paying. So it’s a difficult situation,” he said.

Cynthia Persily

Cynthia Persily, senior director of health sciences for the Higher Education Policy Commission, noted this week that the $48 million is aimed at an entire workforce expansion proposal rather than the programs at three colleges. That includes fully funding the West Virginia nursing scholarship program. And more support will go toward a new nursing faculty loan repayment program.

The final piece is grants for existing nursing schools, “so every school that is willing and able and has capacity to increase their enrollment will have the opportunity to apply for funds,” Persily said.

Funds also are set aside to recruit new nurses into the state as well as retain those already working, Persily said. But the details of how that would work are still being determined.

“So that’s more to come,” Persily said.


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