Pennsylvania well being employees are calling on lawmakers to increase expiring Covid exemptions
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Danielle Ohl from Spotlight PA
HARRISBURG – Exemptions introduced last year to help hospitals and health care workers fight Covid-19 are expiring this month, and professionals warn that the failure could worsen an ongoing workforce crisis as the cases of coronavirus increase again.
At the start of the pandemic, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf approved nearly 100 derogations to relax some of the rules for healthcare workers and ensure that as many professionals as possible were on-site at hospitals, vaccination clinics and long-term care facilities.
These included physicians outside of the state treating patients in Pennsylvania, enabling retired or retired professionals to return to medicine, and expanding the number of people who can give a vaccine.
The temporary changes were made as part of a disaster declaration that was later targeted by Republican legislatures who were dissatisfied with the government’s business closings.
Spurred on by two successful constitutional amendments that curtailed executive power, the GOP-controlled General Assembly ended Wolf’s Emergency Ordinance in June, while the exemptions remained in effect until September 30th.
The legislature will meet again this month, and leadership in the House and Senate has announced that lawmakers will consider whether some exemptions should be made permanent.
However, as coronavirus infections continue to rise among the unvaccinated, healthcare workers fear that even a temporary override of the relaxed rules they have relied on for the past year and a half will only prolong the pandemic.
“Losing the waivers we relied on as another surge is imminent as new flavors of long-term care hit the market would be a real challenge across the state,” said Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Health Care Association that supports care facilities in the country. “We need these waivers until we can get out of here.”
It’s impossible to know how many people used the exemptions because the State Department – which oversees professional licensing in Pennsylvania – did not track this information. Agency spokeswoman Ellen Lyon said the waivers were aimed at mobilizing a larger workforce against the Covid-19 pandemic without creating new document filing requirements.
But more than half a dozen healthcare workers and industry officials told Spotlight PA that some of the relaxed regulations helped alleviate staffing shortages and provide care during the pandemic.
Betsy Snook, a nurse and CEO of the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association, said online continuing education courses have offered flexibility to nurses who need the credits to retain their license.
She also pointed out a waiver that allows nurses to see patients and work with multiple doctors within the same hospital system without the need for additional written agreements. Snook said she feared the nursing committee that approves the agreements will be overwhelmed once the waiver goes away.
Last year, Lyon said government licensing agencies, industry groups and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials urged the Wolf administration to consider waiving some requirements and regulations that either could no longer be met due to the pandemic or were hampering the response to a pandemic. The government eventually relaxed the rules that govern dozens of jobs, including hair salons, salons, dental offices, and funeral directors.
Some of these industries have returned to a semblance of normalcy, proponents said, eliminating the need for the last 18 months of exemptions. The same cannot be said of hospitals and long-term care facilities, where professionals said staff shortages had gotten much worse before the pandemic.
“Caring for people is really hard work physically and emotionally,” said Georgia Goodman, director of government affairs for LeadingAge PA, a group advocating for long-term care nonprofits. “We had left many employees completely, some had some early exits. It’s a terrible storm. “
Michelle Boyle, a Pittsburgh area nurse and former Senate candidate, said in her decades in the field she’s never seen nurses look so hollowed out.
“If you hollow something out, it will just collapse,” she said.
Boyle, who is a member of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, said it was helpful to allow nurses to delay obtaining credits because health care workers were already “regularly about their working hours.”
However, she argued that lawmakers need to make meaningful changes that will make patients and caregivers safer in order to keep staff.
Staff shortages in the healthcare system are a national problem, difficult working conditions, burnout and a highly competitive market fuel the problem.
“If you look at almost every hospital in Pennsylvania, there are many, many, many open positions for those positions,” said Warren Kampf, senior vice president of the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania. “Hospitals pay loyalty rewards, pay bonuses to sign up, and they can’t fill them.”
COVID-19 infection rates have risen nationwide, and although Pennsylvania has one of the lowest per capita case rates in the country, infections are creeping in here too.
Pennsylvania recorded more than 4,500 new coronavirus cases on Friday, a daily number that has not been seen since spring. Hospital admissions are also on the rise, with 1,926 patients in beds on Fridays and 236 on ventilators.
Patients who postponed treatment are returning to hospitals, flu season begins and emergency rooms fill up with patients as public activities resume, Kampf said. Despite the waivers, recruiting was difficult.
“With nurses, doctors, [physician assistants]”Everyone in the hospital is working like crazy under a lot of pressure, there are a lot of bottlenecks out there,” he said. “You put it all together and it’s very difficult to use.”
When lawmakers return to Harrisburg this month, proponents hope that some of the exemptions, including an exemption that allows doctors to use telemedicine, will be implemented quickly. The State House Committee on Aging and Older Adult Services scheduled a hearing Monday to discuss how the expired waivers will affect senior Pennsylvanians.
But most importantly, those who spoke with Spotlight PA said that lasting solutions are needed to ensure that nurses, doctors, and health care workers can stay on the front lines in their positions.
“The nursing staff shortage is probably the most important thing,” said Snook. “No matter how many beds we have, if we don’t have nurses, patients will die.”
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