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Governor’s workforce program whiffs on retention

by Daily Inter Lake
| November 7, 2021 12:00 AM

Gov. Greg Gianforte announced last week that Montana will tap into federal Covid-19 relief funding to jump-start a program aimed at recruiting out-of-state health care workers.

Under the Health Care Workforce Relocation Assistance program, participating hospitals and health-care companies can offer up to $12,500 to new medical employees to cover moving expenses, as well as another $4,300 to cover the employee’s taxes on that payment.

To qualify for these bonuses, new workers must commit to staying employed in Montana for one year. It is estimated that the program could recruit another 238 medical workers to the state.

Hospital CEOs across the state praised the new program, noting Montana’s ongoing health care workforce shortage. State data shows medical and health services as the occupation with the most job openings in the state.

Craig Aasved, CEO of Shodair Children’s Hospital in Helena, was among the choir of support, calling the program a timely investment and important tool for recruiting talent to the state.

“We’ve had to decrease the number of patients we’re admitting to less than half our capacity due to staffing constraints,” Aasved pointed out. “We’re routinely seeing waiting lists of 30 or more kids, and we’ve been as high as twice that in the past few months. In today’s national health care workforce environment and with our payer mix averaging about three-fourths Medicaid¸ Shodair can’t keep pace with monetary incentives for nurses and other in-demand health-care workers.”

We agree that the program is an appropriate use of Covid-relief funding and will make Montana a more attractive landing spot for nurses, physicians and other needed health-care workers. The mounting vacancies at area hospitals directly affect the overall quality of care, and place undue stress on existing employees.

But therein lies the rub. The governor’s program totally whiffs on employee retention incentives.

A proposal that would have set aside $13 million in federal relief funding for retention bonuses for employees of inpatient hospitals was not included in the governor’s plan.

There are thousands of health-care workers who already call Montana home, who have been in the trenches the last two years fighting to keep their communities healthy and safe amid the pandemic. These existing medical workers are invested in their home towns, and have built lasting relationships with their patients and coworkers that improves the overall quality of care.

Many have been asked to coach and assist traveling workers brought in to handle the surge of Covid hospitalizations, who often earn wages far and above what is paid locally.

Offering a financial carrot to out-of-staters, while ignoring the efforts and sacrifice made by Montana’s medical workers, is an embarrassing oversight that will only deepen existing wounds.

What’s worse, the Montana Nurses Association says its repeated requests to have a seat at the table during discussions about Covid relief spending fell on deaf ears.

“Montana nurses are critical stakeholders and crucial to the function of our health-care system,” said Vicky Byrd, CEO of the nurses association. “Nurses should speak to nurse issues.”

Montana’s health-care workforce shortage is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed, but recruitment is only part of the solution. Retaining the dedicated workers who already call the Treasure State home simply can’t be overlooked.