Vermont has a plan for healthcare workforce development. But is it enough?

“We felt like we were drowning before Covid. Then it all snowballed.”

UVM Medical Center Imaging Technologist Lori Draper was speaking at an October 10th roundtable discussion on safe staffing organized by Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals. Three elected officials–Sen. Thomas Chittenden, Rep. Selene Colburn and Rep. Curt McCormack–sat in to listen and discuss policy solutions with union members.

Draper shared the reality of working short-staffed. “In CT scan alone we’ve had two rooms shut down all summer because we don’t have the staff to staff them,” she noted. “For a patient waiting with trauma or a stroke, pulmonary embolism, or dissecting aorta, who might wait an hour for that scan–that hour might be too long.”

“We are all running as fast as we humanly can and it’s just not fast enough. I’ve worked here 23 years and I’ve never seen staffing this bad,” said Draper.

Across the country, Covid-19 has exacerbated pre-pandemic healthcare staffing shortages, warns the state of Vermont’s recently published Health Care Workforce Development Strategic Plan. “More staff are needed to complete routine tasks,” the report notes, while many “staff have left the healthcare profession due to fear, the need to care for children or relatives, and burnout throughout the pandemic.”

For years, Vermont’s union nurses and health professionals have been proposing solutions to address short staffing — including higher base wages, enforceable staffing ratios, and investments in public higher education to boost enrollment in nursing programs.

They also haven’t been afraid to protest. In July, VFNHP leaders joined colleagues from the New York State Nurses’ Association who work at Champlain Valley Physicians’ Hospital in Plattsburgh to rally outside the UVM Health Network headquarters, warning that short-staffing was negatively impacting patient care in the network’s hospitals.

Vermont’s Health Care Workforce Development Strategic Plan ends with a set of policy recommendations for lawmakers. The list includes important proposals, such as increasing funding for loan repayment programs and scholarship funds, raising clinical instructor salaries, and reducing high housing and childcare costs for healthcare workers, but ultimately falls short of what’s needed to fully address the staffing crisis.

Missing from the list of recommendations are:

  • Higher wages for healthcare workers
  • Union protections on the job, and
  • Enabling students to enroll tuition-free in nursing and healthcare programs at Vermont’s public higher education institutions.

These solutions, raised many times by AFT Vermont and other unions, share a common thread: They require a confrontation with the biggest employers and the wealthy, who are opposed to higher wages and paying their fair share of taxes–even if it means prolonging a public health crisis.

That crisis is only growing. On December 1st, UVM Medical Center management announced that it will postpone hundreds of surgeries to make room for a surge of Covid-19 patients. The hospital is hemorrhaging tens of millions of dollars on expensive traveling nurses as it struggles to recruit and retain staff, while the state has opened an investigation into long wait times for patients in the UVM Health Network system.

Sarah Ferguson, VFNHP’s Director of Organizing and an outpatient neurology nurse, is adamant that healthcare workers on the front lines of the staffing crisis are positioned to lead with the solutions.

“I’m the daughter of a nurse who’s worked at the hospital for over 30 years, and have heard how things used to be and how they’ve changed over time,” Ferguson said at the Oct. 10th roundtable. “We need management to come to the table and work with us, because right now we’re trying to fight this battle on our own without the resources we need.”

In the legislative arena, AFT Vermont is calling on policy-makers to “Invest in Healthcare Workers” with a platform that tackles head-on the question of redistributing resources to address the combined staffing and public health emergency.

Will hospital management and policy-makers listen? The answer will likely depend on how well nurses and healthcare professionals are able to organize and make their case.