New COVID cases continue to plummet in New Jersey but after two years of an up and down pandemic roller coaster, Garden State hospitals are now struggling with rising costs and an across-the-board health care worker shortage.

Cathy Bennett, the president and CEO of the New Jersey Hospital Association, said since the pandemic began there has been an ongoing COVID strain and “we’re seeing its impact on our clinical staff, we’re seeing its impact on our non-clinical staff, with folks that provide environmental services, food service workers or IT.”

“Vacancy rates are hitting us across the continuum, whether it is for clinical or non-clinical positions,” she said.

Not enough nurses

Bennett said the nurse vacancy rate in hospitals has gone from 8.2% in 2020 to 13.4% last year.

The vacancy rate among respiratory therapists have gone from 7.6% to 9.7% and labor shortages for many other types of professions related to hospital care and operations have increased from 7.4% to 8.8% over the past year.

Higher costs

To address these gaps Bennett said hospitals are spending a whole lot of money.

“This year alone we’ve infused over $600 million in agency staffing support so that we’re able to continue and provide care to our (hospital) populations,” she said.

She said moving forward, hospitals are going to be continuing to rely on agency staffing to supplement hospital staff, but costs must be brought under control.

“In just a 12-month period there we saw a 202% increase in hourly rates in agency staff, so that’s not sustainable,” she said.

Additionally she said the pipeline of new healthcare workers needs to be strengthened.

Tri-State EMS Workers Confront Growing Number Of Coronavirus Cases
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“We need to explore and invest and also make sure we reimburse for less human-intensive technologies and care models, things like telehealth and digital health,” said Bennett.

She also noted health care worker retention strategies must be emphasized “and they’re doing things like wellness support, child care support, more flexible scheduling.”

She stressed while all of these approaches will help to close the labor shortage gap, we must fundamentally get a handle on COVID-19 “because we know reduced COVID cases in our hospitals is going to remove a lot of this volatility hospitals have seen.”

David Matthau is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at david.matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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