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CHARLESTON — As West Virginia battles a shortage of nurses, state lawmakers are looking for long-term solutions to the problem.

Jim Kaufman, CEO of the West Virginia Hospital Association, told the West Virginia Legislature Joint Commission on Health on Tuesday that while hospitals across the state employ nearly 50,000 West Virginians, they are suffering from a shortage of nurses, as well as clinical and non-clinical staff that are needed to keep a hospital efficient.

Kaufman said the issue is not new, but has been exacerbated by COVID-19.

“We should stop and say thank you for all that they’ve been doing, because they’re tired, they’re exhausted mentally, physically, emotionally, because this has been nonstop,” he said. “And this has been all the demand and the challenges of hospitals and our front-line workers are seeing every day.”

West Virginia has about 6,600 licensed hospital beds, but as of May 2020, just 5,200 were staffed, he said.

“What you see is we’ve had a decline in the number of staffed beds in the last 18 months,” he said. “We lost 500 staffed beds from May 2020 to December 2020. That’s due to a combination of factors, such as health care professionals leaving the state, retiring or simply being out with illness.”

With 40% of the state’s nurses being older than 50 and the West Virginia average population aging and increasing demand, he worries it will worsen. As 200,000 nursing positions were reported vacant in November 2021 nationally, Kaufman said West Virginia is competing with other states in an uphill battle.

“How do we not only develop professionals, but how do we keep them here in the state?” he asked of the commission.

Kaufman also said West Virginia is significantly below the national average in nurses’ pay. The state averages an hourly rate of $30 for a nurse, while the national average is $36. The hourly bill rate for temporary, or travel, nurses ranges from $124 to $180 an hour, more than four times the rate of a West Virginia nurse.

A survey completed by the West Virginia Center for Nursing found the main reason nurses were leaving the state was compensation.

Kaufman said Gov. Jim Justice has already done a great job in temporarily stopping the bleed through the Save our Care initiative to help hospitals pay for overtime, retention bonuses and more incentives to help retain staff. It was to help offset more than $100 million the hospitals incurred in unexpected costs. The dollars were targeted and went straight to front-line workers.

That helped to deal with the immediate crisis, he said. The governor then announced before the holidays the nursing workforce expansion program with hopes of developing long-term solutions, with the goal of increasing the number of nurses by 2,200 over the next four years. That program would expand scholarship programs and educational opportunities and recruit experienced nurses to the state.

He said while the state is doing its part to help provide staff and increase the number of health care professionals, hospitals need to do their part to make sure they are retaining those health care professionals in West Virginia.

Hospitals have been doing different things to help, he said, such as offering competitive salaries and compensation packages as well as retention bonuses.

“We’re also looking at the mental health of our workforce by providing not only wellness programs but stress coaches,” he said.

At the questioning of Delegate Amy Summers, R-Taylor, Kaufman said hospitals are looking at other ideas to improve the work environment as well.

This includes providing other amenities like housing and giving them opportunities to grow and climb ladders within the company, such as through continuing education.

Courtney Hessler is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch, covering state government, health and Marshall University. Follow her on and via Twitter @HesslerHD.

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