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Hospitals ask Biden administration to help lower the soaring cost of travel nurses

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The American Hospital Association says health care staffing agencies are exploiting the pandemic, forcing them to pay astronomical wages for temporary nurses and other staff. Nurses who sign on with the agencies and who are willing to travel can more than double their salaries. That's because of the large sums of federal COVID relief money given to states. Shalina Chatlani, with the Gulf States Newsroom, reports hospitals are asking the White House to do something.

SHALINA CHATLANI, BYLINE: Last year, Kimberly Carson got tired of the nursing job she'd had for eight years at a hospital in Illinois. She didn't think she was being paid well enough to compensate for the pandemic workload.

KIMBERLY CARSON: I feel like you should be able to afford to pay your staff more money and better wages.

CHATLANI: Carson says, by the time the hospital started offering bonuses, it was too late.

CARSON: Like, where were you at, at the beginning when we really needed you? Where were you?

CHATLANI: So she quit and since December has worked as a traveling nurse, making twice her old salary on a temporary contract with a Mississippi hospital.

Demand for travel nurses has soared. Before the pandemic, hospitals sought to hire about 7,000 traveling nurses at any one time. By 2021, they were looking for 28,000. That's in part because of COVID relief money Congress sent states. Most are using it to hire travel nurses. Texas alone has spent $7 billion on temporary medical staff.

ROBYN BEGLEY: It's just not sustainable.

CHATLANI: Robyn Begley is with the American Hospital Association.

BEGLEY: Some hospitals that really struggle to break even at - year after year, we are really in a crisis.

CHATLANI: Nurse wages have also gone up because there are now far fewer nurses than before the pandemic. The 100,000 open positions then has now doubled.

BEGLEY: Some nurse staffing agencies, we believe, are exploiting the severe workforce shortages and charging exorbitant fees.

CHATLANI: Toby Malara of the American Staffing Association, a trade group, says staffing companies are just responding to the current labor market.

TOBY MALARA: And their prices are being driven by the wages and the cost of labor that have come about by the pandemic.

CHATLANI: He says some hospitals and governments are actually making things worse by not being good stewards of COVID relief money.

MALARA: If the federal money is used to pay and retain nurses and pay them bonuses, that could be helpful. But also, it gives them a chance to push out money and pay those higher rates without thinking about it as much.

CHATLANI: Some states, like Massachusetts, are trying to create rate caps, but Malara says that could drive nurses away. Better, he says, would be increasing nurse numbers overall and Medicaid payments to hospitals.

MALARA: Increase federal funding for nursing schools. You have to increase the Medicaid reimbursements.

CHATLANI: The hospital association asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate staffing agencies a year ago. The FTC won't confirm whether it's doing so. The association has sent multiple letters to the White House, too.

A Biden administration official declined to speak publicly about a complaint to the FTC, an independent agency, but said that the White House has deployed federal search teams, and it's helped cover costs for National Guard deployments to hospitals with staffing shortages. It's also trying to accelerate visa processing for 5,000 foreign health care workers.

JAMIE HEARD: It all boils down to, I'm doing this for my family. It boils down to money.

CHATLANI: Jamie Heard, an ICU manager in Mississippi, says for now, nurses know the labor market has changed, and there's a lot less incentive to stay at a given hospital.

HEARD: I can bounce within my career and make more money. Staying long at places is, I think, a thing of the past.

CHATLANI: Last week, nearly 200 members of Congress signed on to a letter to the White House, urging quick action to rein in high travel nurse costs.

For NPR News, I'm Shalina Chatlani in Jackson, Miss.

(SOUNDBITE OF TWO PEOPLE SONG, "I'M TIED, TO YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shalina Chatlani is the health care reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson.

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