First of all, thank you.

As we approach the second anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic, health care workers have suffered greatly. They have watched as thousands of Vermonters have been treated and tested for COVID. And they have seen nearly 500 Vermonters die as a result.

You cannot get more front-line than a nurse.

The pandemic has taken an emotional and professional toll on these women and men. The nonstop grind of the pandemic has been unrelenting in its cruelty to the psyche. We cannot imagine what these people have seen; we have no idea how real that toll is.

But we know that the shortage of nurses is only making matters harder. It is a constant topic of discussion (along with the challenges facing schools statewide and around the nation).

What can be done?

In a commentary circulating around Vermont on Friday, Richard Davis, a longtime columnist for the Brattleboro Reformer (and more notably, a retired nurse), gave a personal perspective.

“When I was in nursing school in the late 1970s, we were told that there would always be a job for us, and the demand for nurses was greater than it had ever been. Things have not changed much in all these years and politicians, nursing leaders and policymakers have been pointing to the problem for just as long. The situation never seems to get any better,” he wrote on his blog. “The causes for the shortage are complex and there is no simple solution to make things better and magically find a fix that will open the floodgates of new nursing graduates eager to fill all the empty slots.”

He cites Medscape.com, “Workforce issues existed well before the pandemic, explained Ernest Grant, current president of the American Nurses Association. Insufficient pay, opportunities and burnout have been problems for a long time. But now it’s gotten worse. Nurses are overworked and underpaid, and there’s no relief in sight, in addition to other work-related issues.”

Davis goes on to explain: “It may be an unfair comparison because doctors spend more time in school than nurses, but the power and prestige differences between the two professions have always been difficult for nurses. There has been a leveling of the field to some degree over the past few decades and that has helped nurses feel better about their jobs.”

Davis echoed statements made by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Gov. Phil Scott and Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint recently about investing in the state’s nursing industry, and offering incentives — including debt forgiveness — to not only stem the hemorrhaging of current staff, but also to build back our hospitals, clinics and health care facilities, and make them stronger.

On the steps of the State House recently speaking with Scott and Balint, Sanders said like other states in the country, Vermont has been dealing with a nursing shortage that predates the pandemic. Sanders said the pandemic has exacerbated the shortage to the point that the state is truly in crisis.

“The simple truth is that patients are not getting the quality care they need because there are not enough nurses to provide that care,” Sanders said.

He said there are about 15,000 nurses in the state currently. Sanders said Vermont will need about 9,000 more during the next five years to fill the current shortages and to replace those who are expected to retire or leave the profession. He said the goal is to have about 25,000 nurses at all levels by the year 2027.

Davis also looked at investing less in traveling nurses that are often expensive stopgaps.

“Let me offer some other possible actions that might help. If a hospital was willing to take a chance, it could look at the amount of money it spends on traveling nurses, often in the millions of dollars. It could end its contract for some or all of the traveling nurses and take that money and use it to provide a big pay raise to all its nurses as well as new hires. It would be a risky move, but if it worked other hospitals might try it,” he wrote.

In fact, Sanders said the state is spending $75 million a year on traveling nurses who come to Vermont for a short period of time for work and then leave. “These traveling nurses receive salaries that are many times higher than our local, permanent nurses receive,” he said.

Sanders suggested creating loan repayment programs and scholarships to incentivize people, including those from out-of-state, to come start a nursing career here.

Regardless of the approach, now is the time lawmakers need to listen to what nurses are saying. Because doing the right thing now (and there is talk among lawmakers to do right by health care workers) will make Vermont stronger for the long-term.

If we don’t take steps toward a sustainable plan, hospitals very well could be left gasping.

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