Safety-net hospitals face the worst of the US' nursing shortage

While the unprecedented nursing shortage is a national problem, safety-net hospitals, which provide care to millions of Americans, face its worst effects, The New York Times reported Jan. 23. 

The Times illuminated the current situation for Mississippi's small safety-net hospitals, which were financially pressed before the pandemic. Now, they're stretched even thinner, unable to compete with larger health systems and agencies paying lofty wages to travel nurses. 

"A lot of community hospitals are wondering how they're going to keep the lights on," Tim Moore, president of the state's hospital association, told the news outlet. 

Nurses in the south — where wages and vaccination rates are low — are particularly frustrated and beyond "burnt out." For many in Mississippi, the delta wave was the last straw that led many to leave their positions at rural hospitals, either opting for higher paying travel gigs or leaving the field altogether. A flood of departures has left Pascagoula (Miss.) Hospital, part of Ocean Springs, Miss.-based Singing River Health System, with 80 unfilled RN positions. That forced administrators to cut a third of the hospital's 350 beds. 

Kelly Cumbest, BSN, RN, patient care manager in the emergency room at Pascagoula Hospital, said in recent months, he'd received just one application for 24 openings in the department. 

"It's not just omicron that worries us," he told the Times. "What scares us is that we don't have people to take care of heart attacks, strokes and car accidents, and that's something the politicians and general public really don't understand." 

Unfilled positions across Singing River means a systemwide patient backlog at a time when beds are full. Patients in the intensive care unit, for example, who are well enough to move to other units, must stay put until staff can transfer them, and severely ill patients sometimes spend a longer time in the ER because staff in the ICU are even more strained. 

Further exacerbating the nursing shortage is the lack of financial incentives available to nurses. Singing River's CEO Lee Bond told the Times that he and other hospital officials in Mississippi have urged state leaders to allocate $1.8 billion in federal pandemic relief funds toward $20,000 retention bonuses for nurses who agree to stay in the state for two years. Those asks have been met with meager proposals of $1,000 bonuses by lawmakers. 

With more than 2,000 open RN positions statewide, hospital executives are worried about the long-term future of healthcare in the state, according to the Times.

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