The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated an existing health care worker shortage, prompting hospitals large and small to have to turn to staffing agencies and traveling nurses to fill holes caused by resignations, retirements and workers out sick with COVID-19 or something else.
But that strategy is only a short-term one, and it’s very expensive. Average pay for travel nurses is currently about $3,300 a week, according to health care recruiting company Vivian Health. That’s up from about $1,800 a week before the pandemic.
CHI Health, which owns St. Elizabeth and Nebraska Heart Hospital in Lincoln, is a perfect example.
Timothy Plante, division vice president of patient care, said the company spent $8 million on traveling nurses in February. Before the pandemic, its average yearly spending on traveling nurses was less than $2 million.
“Obviously, this model is not sustainable,” Plante said. “So we had to get creative.”
That solution is to create its own system of traveling nurses. Called the CHI Health Midwest Internal Travel Program, it allows existing CHI Health nurses, technicians, lab scientists, pharmacists and other employees to travel within the health system’s footprint on 6- to 12-week assignments. The program also is open to experienced health professionals who don’t currently work for CHI Health.
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Plante said it has two levels, one for people who only want work in hospitals in Nebraska and southwest Iowa, and another tier for those who are willing to travel to CHI Health hospitals in Minnesota and North Dakota.
He said the company is able to provide its staff travel nurses the same rate of pay they would get from a staffing agency but still save money because it doesn’t have to pay staffing agency fees. In addition, the workers get the stability of a regular job along with benefits such as vacation and retirement that aren’t typically provided with traveler contracts.
Plante said the system works well, because in many cases it is keeping employees within the CHI Health fold who might have otherwise left to take a traveler position.
“One thing to keep in mind is that if somebody really wants to go do this, they’re probably going to do it anyway, so having a way to keep them internal within our own organization is really important,” he said.
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