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Traveling nurse issue discussed at Arkansas joint committee meeting

St. Bernards and UAMS representatives shed light on nursing shortage
A St. Bernards representative discusses the nursing shortage.
A St. Bernards representative discusses the nursing shortage.(State of Arkansas)
Published: Jan. 3, 2022 at 6:50 PM CST
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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KAIT) - The Arkansas Legislature held a joint committee meeting this morning between the House and Senate Public Health, Welfare, and Labor committees. One of the topics on today’s agenda was the traveling nurse’s program in the state.

Representatives from St. Bernards and UAMS were called upon to discuss the need for traveling nurses in the wake of a nursing shortage.

The nursing shortage is nothing new, as it began before the COVID-19 pandemic, but in the face of such an unprecedented event, hospitals across the state had to do whatever they could to make sure patients were receiving the care they need.

Michael Givens is the administrator at St. Bernards in Jonesboro. He said the hospital has been using traveling nurses for five years.

Instead of hiring the nurses, St. Bernards pays a staffing company a certain rate, and that company then pays the nurses.

The issue stems from the cost.

While UAMS Associate Vice Chancellor Dr. Tranda Ray said they start nurses at $22 an hour, it costs upwards of $150 an hour to pay a traveling nurse.

Of course, that money also goes toward benefits, travel, and other expenses outside of payroll, but it’s still a hefty bill to front.

According to both Givens and Ray, the real problem starts at the source: Education.

“We need to find ways to increase the pipeline so we have more circulating nurses in the state to even work with, to begin with,” Ray said.

Both cited faculty shortages in nursing programs across the state and smaller graduating classes as the root issue.

Faculty are leaving due to retirement or changes in the profession, while fewer students are enrolling in nursing schools. This creates a pipeline without enough nurses to fill open positions.

“We’ve seen where instructors have left because they could make more salary as a bedside nurse,” Givens said. “So if you have that issue and that problem, then, of course, the root has to be addressed which is the pay at the faculty level.”

Enter traveling nurses.

The rates for these traveling nurses do fluctuate. In fact, Givens said this is the highest he has ever seen them.

As demand goes up, so does the price. However, he expects that price tag to drop as the end of the pandemic nears.

For now, they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

One legislature asked why the hospitals don’t simply raise their wages. Though they have increased pay for some and provided the opportunity for incentivized overtime, Givens said it isn’t that simple.

Right now, they’re receiving additional funds from COVID relief programs. If they were to raise wages, they might not be able to afford their staff once that funding runs out.

Neither hospital had an answer for the problem, though they are both doing what they can to get things under control.

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