Opinion: A Vermont nurse’s view on the healthcare staffing crisis.

This OpEd by Deb Snell was published in the VTDigger, Brattleboro Reformer, and Caledonian Record.

I work as a registered nurse in the Intensive Care Unit at UVM Medical Center, where I also serve as the president of our union.

For almost two years, my colleagues and I have lived with the daily heartbreak and anxiety of working short-staffed during the Covid-19 pandemic. We’ve held press conferences, rallies, and sat down with lawmakers to impress upon them the gravity of what we’re facing.

That’s why Monday’s press conference by Governor Scott, Senator Sanders, and Senate President Balint calling for action to address the healthcare staffing crisis came as a breath of fresh air, and was the topic of conversation this week in our unit.

We applaud Vermont’s top leaders for taking this crisis seriously and proposing concrete measures to solve it. Boosting enrollment in Vermont’s nursing programs through scholarships and loan repayment programs is a good start, as is the call for higher salaries for our nurse educator faculty members. We would urge policymakers to go further by providing free nursing tuition at UVM and the Vermont State Colleges, simultaneously investing in the future of our public higher education institutions.

We also appreciate the call to look internationally for recruiting nurses to Vermont, provided they are entitled to the same union rights and protections and aren’t treated as second-class citizens in our communities.

Monday’s press conference, however, missed a major element that my colleagues immediately picked up on: What about our current healthcare professionals who are overworked, underpaid, and leaving en masse to travel or retire from the profession?

Vermont’s healthcare employers–from hospital executives to nursing home administrators–hold a high level of responsibility for the widely felt burnout in our profession, and must be called upon to do more to retain existing staff. For starters, that means across-the-board wage increases and respect for the work we do, including non-interference when staff choose to organize and form a union.

At UVM Medical Center, we have over 300 vacant positions and we often work side-by-side with traveling nurses who are paid up to three times our salary. Yet hospital administrators, who have made it clear they can provide nurses a ten percent raise today, refuse to release it without onerous restrictions on our union rights. This basic disrespect only serves to increase burnout and drive nurses out of the profession, exacerbating the crisis.

Policymakers must keep in mind that healthcare workers aren’t just numbers on a spreadsheet. We are people who deserve dignity and fairness as we put our lives on the line to keep our communities safe.

Whether we work in the Emergency Department or provide home health services, nurses and healthcare professionals are tired of carrying the weight of this pandemic and serving as a shock absorber for our state’s underinvestment in housing, mental health, and long-term care.

Healthcare professionals are the fastest growing sector of the workforce and represent the economy of the future. It’s time for Vermont’s lawmakers and employers alike to bring resources to the table and make meaningful investments in our healthcare professionals.

Deb Snell is a Registered Nurse and President of Vermont Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals. She lives in Moretown.