Nursing Home Operators Say Virus Brings “Significant Staffing Challenges”

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Nursing home operators tell NBC 6 it is harder to find enough staff to consistently meet state standards as the coronavirus pandemic drives up the cost for healthcare workers. This comes as South Florida hospitals report they’re raising nurse-to-patient ratios and bringing in travel nurses to fill gaps. 

In short, there’s a huge demand for healthcare workers and not enough supply. Friday brought another record day of hospitalizations as the delta variant and the unvaccinated drive an increase in cases. 

Nursing homes are required to have workers care for residents at least 2.5 hours a day as part of their minimum standard of care. If they don’t, they could get fined by the state.

The non-profit, 120-bed Susanna Wesley Health Center in Hialeah has 155 staff on the job. They’re looking for up to 10 more certified nursing assistants, according to administrator Marco Carrasco. 

The hiring process is a mad scramble. 

“We are now at the gate of implosion if we don’t address it correctly,” Carrasco said. 

It’s an issue nursing homes are seeing around the country. This week, the American Health Care Association sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asking them to pump in $13 billion to help facilities cover increasing costs. 

According to the Florida Health Care Association, the hardest positions to find are certified nursing assistants, direct caregivers, housekeeping staff, and registered nurses. 

“Some of the staff graduating from the local universities, local schools are now being plugged into the hospital system and bypassing the nursing homes. And some of the staff are leaving us for ten to fifteen dollars more, jumping out,” Carrasco said. 

The situation in hospitals is not any better. Nurses on the ground in South Florida hospitals describe a similar covid-induced crunched. The three largest public health systems in South Florida, Memorial, Jackson, and Broward, confirmed the problem last week. 

NBC 6 spoke to two nurses feeling overworked and understaffed at work. They did not want to identify themselves for fear of retaliation at work in a stressful time. 

“They can make all the beds in the world but if they don’t have a nurse to take care of them… That's what you go to the hospital for,” one said. 

Carrasco at Susanna Wesley says they have a long history of going above and beyond the minimum standards but worries the current model is unsustainable. 

“This pandemic has just changed the game. And we’re now at a crossroads. We’re never going to compromise but we can’t operate at a deficit and hope to stay sustainable,” Carrasco said. 

The largest interest group for long-term care centers in the state is the Florida Health Care Association. They polled their members last month and most facilities reported having “significant staffing challenges.” 

The organization surveyed 310 nursing homes and 23 assisted living facilities and found 88% had a staffing shortage last month, 52% reduced admissions because of staff shortages, and 92% had to bring in temporary workers. 

Kirsten Knapp from the organization says they feel the same labor shortage that many restaurants, hospitals, and other industries are feeling.

“It’s really significant. It’s not only affecting what’s happening now but it’s going to affect our ability to care for seniors into the future if we don’t get a handle on this,” Knapp said. 

This could mean hourly wages go up, which employees will like. 

Facilities could then pass those costs down, having prices for care increase, especially those paying out-of-pocket on the private market. 

One of the policy goals for the Florida Health Care Association this next legislative session is to get an increased reimbursement to facilities through the Medicaid program. That will likely kick off a battle in the state capital. Many interest groups are involved in long-term care policy battles. 

Healthcare worker unions and the AARP oppose any type of reduction in the minimum standards of care but support more funding to keep caregivers on the job. 

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