As the Vermont Legislature prepares to debate how to spend millions of dollars in federal aid, state and federal lawmakers say that one immediate priority is addressing the state’s nursing staff shortage.
Standing on the Statehouse steps in Montpelier one day before legislators gavel in, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Republican Gov. Phil Scott and state Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, said Monday that Vermont’s nurse shortage is at a crisis point.
“What many Vermonters might not realize is that we have a nursing shortage that predates the pandemic. And like many other sectors across our economy, this global emergency has revealed starkly the cracks in the system,” Balint said. “We need more nurses in Vermont … and we have to be aggressive in addressing this shortage now.”
According to Sanders, Vermont needs to add 9,000 nurses to the workforce in the next seven years in order to address a crisis made worse by the state’s aging population.
One cause of the problem, Sanders said, is that the state does not have enough nursing educators on hand to train the next generation. Nursing instructors on average earn a salary of about $65,000 per year, he said — significantly less than they make if they stay in the field. Boosting instructor pay would incentivize more people to step up and train new nurses, he said.
“The very good news — and this is good news — is that young people want to become nurses, and virtually every nursing school in the state of Vermont receives more applicants than they can accommodate. People want to enter this enormously important profession,” he said. “The bad news is that despite the number of applicants coming in, our nursing schools are turning away people who wish to enter the profession because we lack the educators, and that is pretty crazy.”
According to Sanders’ office, Vermont nursing schools see between 500 and 600 new nurses graduate per year — less than half of the number needed to keep up with workforce demands.
To fill in the gaps, many nurses are working longer hours — a Band-Aid solution that is exhausting and unsustainable, Balint said, particularly as the pandemic continues to strain the health care system and burn out workers. And to increase the number of nurses on the floor, Vermont hospitals are spending $75 million per year on traveling nurses, according to Sanders. Traveling nurses are expensive for hospitals, earning more per hour than staff nurses, and are often nurses from out of state who do not intend on staying in Vermont long-term.
Scott recently recommended in his mid-year state budget adjustment proposal that roughly $18 million this year go toward training and recruiting home- and community-based providers. He also said Monday that he plans to propose another $15 million in retention bonuses and training grants to incentivize Vermont nurses to stay in the state — and new ones to come.
Balint and House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, have said that addressing the state’s health care staffing shortage is a top priority as lawmakers reconvene for 2022’s legislative session.
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