The chairs and ranking members of the Wisconsin Legislature’s Assembly Committee on Health and the Senate Committee on Health hosted a virtual Wisconsin Hospital Association (WHA) workforce legislative briefing for state policymakers and staff March 31, 2021. The legislative briefing
shared findings and recommendations from WHA’s recently released 2020 Health Care Workforce Report
and featured leaders from Wisconsin hospitals and health systems with frontline experience in finding solutions to workforce challenges exacerbated by COVID-19 challenges.
State Assembly Reps. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) and Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) and state Senators Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point) and Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) invited state legislators and legislative staff to tune in as Rep. Sanfelippo, WHA President and CEO Eric Borgerding, hospital CEOs Dan Rohrbach (Southwest Health, Platteville) and John Russell (Prairie Ridge Health, Columbus) and WHA Senior Vice President of Workforce and Clinical Practice Ann Zenk shared how sound health care policy strengthens the health care workforce and assists policymakers in addressing current and future health care workforce needs. More than 100 legislators and staff tuned in via the Zoom briefing, Facebook
Assembly Health Chair Rep. Sanfelippo opened the briefing, noting the impact of COVID-19 on health care: “It’s even more important for us to this session and moving forward, and especially as we get into the budget, to be able to continue to work with WHA and the health care industry to bridge the gaps between workforce needs and workforce supply, and do everything we can to strengthen the health care workforce.”
WHA President and CEO Borgerding provided an overview of WHA’s advocacy efforts and thanked policymakers for their partnership. “WHA puts a very high priority into policy development. We invest time, effort and resources into understanding what the problems and challenges are and in a very proactive way identify public policy solutions to move the ball forward, to keep Wisconsin’s great health care system always improving, always expanding access, always doing better.” Before turning the presentation over to WHA’s Ann Zenk, Borgerding recognized the importance of the Wisconsin Legislature, the Evers administration and Wisconsin state agencies in achieving that goal. “Thank you, Representative Sanfelippo, and thank you to your colleagues, Representative Subeck and Senators Testin and Erpenbach for joining you in co-hosting this briefing. I will also say thank you to the legislators and staff and others for joining us and taking time out of your schedules. It is greatly appreciated,” Borgerding said.
Zenk shared trends and data from WHA’s workforce report and explained how the pandemic highlighted issues that were present before COVID-19 and will remain after. She explained how demographics and the “Silver Tsunami” (the aging of the very large baby boom generation) are simultaneously increasing health care demand and shrinking the available workforce. “We’ve been saying in our workforce reports these past few years that the health care workforce can’t grow fast enough to keep pace with the “Silver Tsunami,” and COVID was a very compressed example of being unable to grow the workforce fast enough,” Zenk noted, adding, “COVID sharply demonstrated the impact, but also the possibilities of utilizing teams, technology and top-of-skill practice to safely and effectively care for more patients more quickly than Wisconsin hospitals ever imagined possible.”
Zenk discussed how effective telemedicine has been in creating needed access to health care during the COVID-19 pandemic. State and federal lawmakers created the necessary flexibility to expand telemedicine and providers and patients rapidly accepted virtual care. “When COVID wanes, we will still see an appetite and appreciation for telemedicine, and we need to consider what changes are needed to support better and more utilization of telehealth services like telephone visits and home monitoring,” said Zenk.
Zenk also emphasized the importance of reducing the regulatory burden that stresses the health care workforce. WHA cites reports showing that even prior to COVID-19 clinicians were spending more time in electronic health records and meeting regulatory requirements than they were in face-to-face interaction with patients. Federal findings from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) illustrate the impact of COVID-19 data requirements on the health care workforce. CMS estimates add up to 2 million hours nationally of data entry for the hospital workforce in just a six-month timeframe. “Before considering any new regulation, we must carefully balance the benefit against the additional time it takes the workforce away from patients,” cautioned Zenk. “We must also work together to actively seek opportunities to eliminate existing regulations and requirements that weigh down the health care workforce.”
Two experienced and expert hospital leaders joined the presenter panel and provided legislators with a frontline view of the impact of COVID-19 on their workforce, their organizations and their communities.
John Russell, CEO of Prairie Ridge Health in Columbus shared with legislators his hospital’s journey through the pandemic as he and his workforce learned about COVID-19, refined their pandemic surge plans and got ready for what Russell described as “what looked like the perfect storm for the industry.”
As coronavirus cases and hospitalizations climbed, the Prairie Ridge CEO noted, “When we asked the team, the team kept saying, ‘Yes.’” Russell described how his organization, along with other Wisconsin hospitals and health systems, deferred non-emergent care, searched for increasingly hard-to-find (and increasingly expensive) personal protective equipment to safeguard the team, and invested in costly infrastructure changes to provide for the health care needs of Columbus, while also serving as the predominant source of COVID-19 testing and now vaccination for the community.
Russell emphasized the key role the workforce plays in meeting not only the health care needs, but often the socioeconomic needs of the community. “Bricks and mortar don’t take care of people; people take care of people,” he said. Russell also echoed Rep. Sanfelippo on the importance of sustaining and strengthening the health care workforce and thanked legislators for their support of crucial programs. noting “DSH (Disproportionate Share Hospital payments) and the Rural Critical Care Supplement help recognize the commitment hospitals make to their communities and provide resources to not only be the safety net but continue to provide the high-quality care that we take pride in here in Wisconsin.”
Another expert CEO, Dan Rohrbach, who leads Southwest Health in Platteville, illustrated key points from the WHA Wisconsin 2020 Health Care Workforce Report and also recognized key legislation passed and signed into law last week—Assembly Bill 148, now 2021 Act 10
Rohrbach shared lessons learned from the pandemic, noting, “We had to be creative, make important decisions quickly, to get through COVID, and we have to figure out how we can develop our workforce going forward.”
The Platteville CEO said, “When health care organizations are able to recruit and retain talented health care professionals into our building, the rest is just John’s and my job. We can do that, but your help in getting talented staff into our communities and eliminating the wait for patients is so important.” The individual examples Rohrbach provided of how the licensure pathway allowed under emergency order during the pandemic and now made permanent by 2021 Act 10 gave legislators a real-world view of how eliminating licensure delays provides virtually immediate access to vital care for communities across Wisconsin.
Rohrbach thanked legislators for their partnership with WHA and WHA members and looked forward to the important work ahead. “We will all need to continue to look for solutions and legislation that makes good common sense for local and state health care providers to make decisions to best care for their communities, he said.”
The data and analysis in the report and the expertise of hospital and health system leaders like Rohrbach and Russell drive WHA’s workforce recommendations. Zenk closed the session by noting, “As COVID recedes, and we move on to our new normal, we appreciate and need your partnership.” She summarized the importance of this work for a workforce that can’t grow fast enough to keep up with the demands of an aging population. “We need solutions to grow the workforce faster, to utilize teams, technology and the best setting for the patient and family, and to reduce regulatory burden and increase regulatory flexibility, so we have the workforce needed to sustain Wisconsin’s high quality health care.”
Contact Ann Zenk
with questions or ideas regarding the health care workforce or WHA’s 2020 Wisconsin Health Care Workforce Report.