Health Care

Valley hospitals grapple with skyrocketing cost of travel nurses

National shortage makes it more competitive

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In a normal year, hospitals have no problem staffing their halls with travel nurses to fill in gaps or prepare for the busy winter months. But 2021, much like the year before, has not been a normal year for the health care industry.

Valley hospitals are continuing to see turnover within their skilled nursing staffs because of the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and hiring new employees to replace them has been a challenge. But hiring travel nurses has been no easy feat either.

A look at ZipRecruiter job listings for travel nurses in the Phoenix area shows available salaries from $4,000 per week, with some fetching nearly $6,000 per week for shortened contracts, typically several months long.

High cost and competition with other states for a set number of travel nurses has been of particular difficulty for Valleywise Health, which serves as a safety net hospital for low-income residents in Maricopa County.

“The current rates of being able to attract and secure contract labor continue to escalate within the state of Arizona around this,” Dr. Michael White, chief clinical officer at Valleywise, told reporters on a Nov. 17 call. “When you’re a safety net public health care system like Valleywise Health, it does put us at a disadvantage to be able to keep up with rates of some of the other hospital systems within the market.”

White also acknowledged the health system has not received much federal funding to help accommodate extra costs surrounding the pandemic. Valleywise received an infusion of funds during the first phase of the federal CARES Act but did not in the second distribution phase because of funding it previously gained through Proposition 480, passed by voters. That money was specifi cally designated for development projects, putting it at a disadvantage to shore up its staff.

On Nov. 17, White said the main medical center in Phoenix was 12 nurses short, with the entire hospital system — community health clinics included — running 30 members short. The intensive care unit was 96% full with COVID-19 patients.

“We continue to recruit nursing, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, pharmacy techs, behavioral health therapists throughout the organization” he said.

That workforce shortage and historic demand for health care is being felt financially. One travel nurse staffing company, San Diego- based AMN Healthcare Services, reported $878 million in revenue for third-quarter 2021, which was 59% more than in 2020. AMN places medical staff in Arizona, among other states.

“We are deeply grateful for the hard work of all health care professionals and organizations and the incredibly talented team at AMN,” said AMN Healthcare CEO Susan Salka in a statement announcing the financials. “Our country is experiencing the most severe health care labor shortage in history, and it will likely persist for many years to come and forever change the workforce management paradigm for healthcare organizations. With an expectation of this environment continuing for the foreseeable future, our team is rapidly deploying digital solutions, automation and hiring a record number of new team members to enable placement of healthcare professionals now and evolve AMN’s solutions to meet this higher demand long term.”

Another, Colorado-based Fastaff Travel Nursing, said in a Sept. 27 news release it has experienced more than 25% growth in revenue and hiring over the past year amid “unprecedented demand” for its services.

As of Aug. 10, Phoenix- based Banner Health was short more than 1,000 nurses and was planning to hire hundreds of travel nurses for the busy winter months while competing with other states for the same pool of potential employees amid a nationwide shortage.

Arizona’s largest hospital system, Banner said many nurses and hospital staffers were getting burnt out after months of grueling pandemic work.

“We have put efforts into place to keep them well with on-site counseling,” Banner Health’s Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Marjorie Bessel said in a call with reporters at the time. “And [Banner has] also raised significantly the starting pay rate for many [registered nurses] so we can stay competitive in the marketplace.”

David Lozano, a spokesman for Banner, said staffing continues to be a top priority for the health system as it heads into the latest COVID-19 surge. He said the system remains more than 1,000 nurses short and Banner currently has 2,500 traveling nurses on staff; the provider typically brings in anywhere from 600 to 800 for the busier winter months as snowbirds descend on the Valley and flu season begins.

“In addition to recruiting for core staff positions, we work with several agencies to secure travel workers,” he said. “Banner has implemented a number of things to retain our existing workforce, such as our minimum wage increase, increase of starting base pay for new nurses and raises for more than 9,000 existing Banner RNs. Although we are experiencing staffing constraints, we are still able to provide safe care for our growing number of patients.”

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