ATLANTA — Since October, the Northeast Georgia Health System has spent $80 million on contracted nurses to fill the gap left by an extreme workforce shortage that administrators say is unlike hospitals have ever seen before.
“It is absolutely unsustainable,” Deb Bailey, executive director of government affairs for the system, told lawmakers.
The number of job openings has skyrocketed, too, she said, five times that of what it was before the pandemic.
Other hospitals described similar and dire situations to a Senate panel Thursday.
Tanner Health System in Carrollton is currently paying travel nurses $160 an hour — a figure that has come down recently from pandemic-related highs.
Emily Talley, vice president of human resources, said that the hospital was even contracting nurses through staffing agencies long before the pandemic to offset staffing problems.
“We have four times the number of job openings that we did before COVID and a third less applications,” she said. “And it’s not getting better.”
Lawmakers are wrestling with how to bolster the state’s health care workforce that experts say has dwindled for a variety of reasons — from burnout under the crush of COVID to fewer students entering the field as older professionals retire.
Georgia ranks 45th across the country in the number of active nurses per capita.
A bill that’s already passed the House and is likely to make it to the Senate floor would create a robust council of experts and stakeholders to examine the issue and hopefully come up with both short and long-term solutions.
Gainesville Republican Rep. Lee Hawkins, the sponsor of the measure, said the state is about 27,000 nurses short of what it should have — a number being currently supplemented by travel nurses, many paid for by federal COVID-relief money.
“This is going to be a major, major problem, especially when the CRF funding runs out, which is right now holding our hospitals up by helping them pay for nurses and physicians from agencies,” he said Thursday.
During the height of the pandemic, Gov. Brian Kemp announced multiple installments of funds dedicated to contracting health care workers for hospitals sinking under COVID case loads.
According to his office, the state spent a little more than $735 million of federal relief funds to bolster the workforce.
Still, hospitals across the state have had to cut back the care they can provide to communities to offset the steep price tag of contracted staff.
Hawkins referenced Stephens Hospital, in Stephens County, that recently closed its obstetrics unit because it did not have the numbers to staff it.
Statesboro Republican Billy Hickman warned his colleagues that Georgia knows far too well what happens when a rural hospital is forced to shutter its doors: an unavoidable ripple effect through the area’s economy.
“We all know that if a hospital closes in a town, they don’t open back up,” he said. “And we also know that if a town does not have a hospital or a community does not have a hospital, nobody wants to live there. So those communities die.”
Since 2008, Georgia has lost nine of its rural hospitals, most recently Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center in Cuthbert.
Julie Windom, with Atrium Health, said the system’s rural medical centers have been forced to close beds in all of its locations because of a lack of staff to care for patients.
Administrators made desperate efforts to mitigate the situation – Windom said the system implemented three different pay raises to staff during the pandemic and raised the minimum wage.
Still, funds are being drained to cover the $165 per hour cost of contracted staff.
Even today after the COVID surge, the 637-bed hospital in Macon has an average of 60 beds closed per day. In Milledgeville, 25 of the hospital’s 140 beds are closed as well as a full surgical medical unit.
“It was either that or discontinue much-needed services,” she said.
The Georgia Hospital Association told GPB that travel nurses make up about 60% or more of staff across its 160-member hospitals, although it varies. Smaller hospitals that can’t afford it are closing beds.
Anna Adams, with GHA, said finding a solution to the workforce shortage is the group’s top priority.
“I can say without hesitation that this bill, HB 1520, is probably the most important bill that we are working on and supporting this year,” she said.