Internal agency will help curb staffing challenges, CHI Health CEO says

When E.J. Kuiper began his tenure as CEO of Omaha, Neb.-based CHI Health in January, the idea of starting an internal staffing agency was already something he had conceived.

Mr. Kuiper, who was also appointed president of Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health's Midwest division, came from Springfield, Ill.-based Hospital Sisters Health System, which had been working on such an effort. 

Additionally, he learned corporate leaders of CommonSpirit, a 140-hospital organization, included a staffing agency in their five-year strategic plan.

"I think it makes sense because we're all dealing with significant staffing shortages for various reasons," Mr. Kuiper told Becker's. "This pandemic has really wreaked havoc on the workforce, inside and outside of healthcare."

Some workers have left healthcare altogether, while others have left their hospital jobs for positions at external healthcare staffing agencies or retired earlier than planned. 

To address this, CHI Health is working on creating pipelines and partnerships with, for example, Omaha-based Creighton University, CHI Health's academic medical partner, and other training programs across CommonSpirit's Midwest division to support recruitment efforts, Mr. Kuiper said. 

As CommonSpirit develops a staffing agency at the corporate level, he is also working on deploying an internal agency across the company's Midwest division.

CommonSpirit's Midwest division has 28 hospitals, and CHI Health manages three more. In all, Mr. Kuiper is responsible for 31 hospitals across North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska. 

"We need to make sure we have staffing available now, not just for COVID and ICU units but across the spectrum," Mr. Kuiper said. "Building out an internal [staffing program] makes sense on a number of different levels. We're planning on recruiting people from the outside, recruiting people from within, to join this workforce pool that can be allocated to wherever the highest needs in the division, in the system might be."

He also noted that COVID-19 surges occur at different times in different regions.

Therefore, "it would be good to have a workforce, an internal agency pool of people you can deploy as the needs arise across various geographic destinations.That's the concept behind it," he said. 

Plans for a staffing agency are ongoing.

During the planning process, the key task is to figure out the best way to deploy workers quickly to where the greatest need is, Mr. Kuiper said.

Protocols are being ironed out. But Mr. Kuiper said one option would be to take a tiered approach in which a nurse, medical technologist or respiratory therapist would be in a higher-paying tier if they had more flexibility from a geographical standpoint.

"Maybe if you're willing to travel within an hour of your home base, the pay rate would be set at X. If you're willing to travel beyond that, you might be paid at a higher rate," he said. 

"Those are the things that we're looking at, and we want to make sure it's effective both from a patient care perspective [and is] attractive for our employees."

Pittsburgh-based UPMC launched its own internal staffing agency in December. John Galley, chief human resources officer for the health system, said compensation for travel nurses at UPMC is still higher than full-time employees because the job comes with its own set of challenges, including a lack of benefits or little control over one's work schedule.

CommonSpirit's Midwest division also hasn't determined which positions would be available for the internal agency, although it is clear that will be based on where the greatest needs are and what positions are needed most, Mr. Kuiper said. 

"We're in the development phase now," he said. "We're hopeful, looking at the national and regional models, that this current surge is near or perhaps past its peak. We also know we might get a few months reprieve before the next surge might be happening. We don't know when it will happen. Some models show this might be in the fall. But what we want to make sure of is that we have developed something that we can deploy next time those needs arise again and staffing shortages start peaking again." 

Kathy Sanford, DBA, RN, executive vice president and chief nursing officer at CommonSpirit Health, expressed similar sentiments when she spoke with Becker's in November about efforts at the corporate level. 

"We will not ever probably be able to meet all of our nurse traveler needs, but we're a large enough organization that we believe we should have our own staffing agency, which will allow our nurses to travel if they want to go and see different parts of the system," she said. "This will help us maintain the right levels of nurses a little more easily than when you have to depend on other partners. I don't want to say that we won't depend on other partners, but we believe that the agency is a step in the right direction."

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