MN medical workers are in short supply and there’s no easy solution

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MN medical workers are in short supply and there’s no easy solution
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Nearly two years of pandemic working conditions have wiped out major gains in Minnesota’s health care workforce, leaving the state with a critical shortage that has no end in sight.

Between 2010 and 2020, the number of people licensed to work as nurses in the state grew by 43,400, or 35 percent. But as the coronavirus pandemic has dragged on, huge numbers of health care workers have left the bedside, leaving the state with thousands of job openings as patient numbers have swelled.

“In certain areas, the situation is very dire,” said Anthony Schaffhauser, workforce development director for HealthForce Minnesota, which the Minnesota State higher education system created in 2005 to grow the state’s health care workforce to meet the needs of an aging population.

“The long-term care industry is in crisis, without a doubt,” he said. “It is to the point where they deployed the National Guard.”

Hospitals have needed help, too.

At least four teams of doctors and nurses from the U.S. Department of Defense have been in the state to help overburdened hospitals care for patients. Last month, Gov. Tim Walz agreed to a $40 million contract with a temporary staffing agency to bring 200 nurses and 50 other medical workers to the state.

Staffing shortages are so troubling that hospital leaders pleaded with Minnesotans in December to do everything they could to preserve treatment capacity during the latest pandemic surge, saying facilities were “literally full.”

More than a month later, the situation has improved, yet more than 1,250 patients with COVID-19 still were hospitalized statewide. Half the state’s hospitals have no beds available for adult intensive care and one-third have no regular beds.

Schaffhauser compared medical worker shortages to recent supply-chain struggles for products during the pandemic.

“In health care, our main supply issue is human resources — that’s what you need,” he said. “If there are supply-chain issues, it is a lot more dire than ‘I’m not going to get my new iPhone for a few weeks.’ ”

Walz already has pledged tens of millions of dollars to help the industry limp through the pandemic, and state lawmakers say they’re looking for more substantial changes to help hire and retain workers. But so far, there is no consensus on what to do.

THE STATE OF STAFFING

Jenna Sheldon, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Hospital Association, said health providers have faced unprecedented worker departures during the pandemic. She cited a Morning Consult poll from October that found nearly one in five health workers nationwide had left the field during the pandemic.

Minnesota has experienced similar attrition as workers have left grueling jobs at hospitals and in long-term care for less taxing work.

There are currently almost 2,000 open positions at Minnesota hospitals and clinics alone, Sheldon said.

“This is for multiple reasons, including early retirement, burnout and stress,” she said.

Roughly one in five open jobs in Minnesota is in the health care industry, according to the Department of Employment and Economic Development. That includes 9,250 openings for home health and personal care aides, 6,000 for certified nursing assistants and 4,800 for registered nurses.

Schaffhauser said nurses have lots of work options outside of hospitals that are more appealing during a pandemic.

The long-term care industry has long faced worker shortages due to low pay and difficult working conditions. Industry advocates say the problem is exacerbated by low reimbursement rates for patients on public assistance that push down wages.

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