Senators discussed bills that aim to supplement Washington’s nursing workforce Wednesday during a Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee meeting.
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Senate Bill 5498 would establish the Nurse Loan Repayment Assistance Program under the Washington Health Corps for nurses at participating employers. Participating employers would include hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, ambulatory surgical facilities, and various health centers.
Bill sponsor Sen. Mark Mullet (D-Issaquah) said there is a major workforce challenge in the healthcare space when it comes to nursing, and lawmakers need to leave this legislative session with solutions to that challenge.
“I do not think there is just one answer to solve this problem,” Mullet said. “I think this bill is one of half a dozen bills that we’re going to have to pass this legislative session to address the workforce challenge issue.”
SB 5498 would establish a multi-year loan repayment matching fund program, in which employers would provide half the funds needed, and the state would provide the other half.
“We have not determined the exact amount of state appropriations to this bill, but I will promise folks on this committee that I am using all of my financial ingenuity to come up with very creative ways of how we can pay for this,” Mullet said. . “I think we’re talking about $75-100 million from the state in the first four years, which would then be matched by employers.”
While the bill would likely attract new nurses to the sector, Mullet focused on the retention benefits it would provide.
“It’s great to get all the new nurses coming in, but if all the current nurses in our workforce are dropping off quicker then we’re bringing new nurses in, we’re actually just treading water,” Mullet said. “We’re not actually making progress.”
Jackie Mossakowski, chief nursing officer at Tri-State Memorial Hospital in Clarkston, testified in support of SB 5498. She said competition for nurses is fierce, and especially challenging for facilities in rural areas.
“It’s a nationwide market, and rural nursing is just not for everyone,” Mossakowski said. “While larger operations can afford to offer benefits like student loan repayment assistance, we cannot. We could market this benefit to nurses in our state as a place to stay. We could market it as a place for experienced nurses to come from other states. We have to find innovative ways to attract, recruit, and retain nurses.”
SB 5582 would reduce barriers and expand educational opportunities to increase the state’s nurse workforce. Bill sponsor Sen. Jeff Holy (R-Spokane) discussed some workforce-related challenges the bill would help address. He said there is not a pipeline available to replace the state’s many retiring nurses, and facilities that rely on Medicare and Medicaid funding can’t compete with the wages offered at private facilities.
“It’s not a perfect bill yet at the same time, holistically, this is a path we want to create,” Holy said.
Washington State Nurses Association Director of Government Affairs Katharine Weiss testified in support of SB 5582.
“We appreciate the bill’s focus on addressing the needs of rural communities,” Weiss said. “Nurses in rural communities are being asked to take on more and more patients every day. And healthcare needs are becoming much more complex. By targeting and increasing recruitment efforts to get local community members, particularly young people, into training programs we can strengthen our homegrown workforce.”
SB 5582 would create nursing education opportunities at community and technical colleges, and within the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA).
“Washington’s veterans homes are suffering from severe staffing shortages, and the nurses that are left must take on responsibilities far beyond traditional nurse duties,” Weiss said. “Veterans deserve the best care the state can offer, but they are not currently getting that. Instead, patients are left sitting in their own bodily fluids for hours as nurses try to care for the imminent problems of the 20 other patients they’re responsible for that day.
SB 5582’s focus on getting more CNAs into these facilities is crucial for retention of our healthcare workers, and for nurses. It’s also crucial for the safety of our veterans.”
The bill would create a certified CNA pilot program for high school students. Washington State DVA CFO Terry Westhoff said the department is in dire need of CNAs.
“We have a CNA vacancy rate of 35% at our four homes, which represents 120 vacant staff positions,” Westhoff said. “Because of this shortage, we must hold beds vacant, which means we’re not able to serve veterans and families when they need us most. Training potential CNAs, who make up the majority of our direct care staff, is a major obstacle. And establishing an in-house training program would allow DVA to recruit and retain hard-to-fill positions.”