As lawmakers prepare to write Wisconsin’s next biennial budget, one potential source of bipartisan cooperation could be working to address the state’s health care workforce shortages.
That’s according to five of the state’s top health care lobbyists, who discussed what the outcome of Nov. 8’s midterm elections will mean for health care in the state during a Tuesday event hosted by Wisconsin Health News.
The need for help is urgent, the lobbyists said. A March 2022 report from the Wisconsin Hospital Association found that an “aging workforce combined with a spike in worker departures created unprecedented levels of vacancy rates in health care professions in 2021.” A lack of workers, combined with a licensing backlog affecting health care workers, leaves health care providers struggling to staff their facilities, the lobbyists said.
Eric Borgerding, CEO of the Wisconsin Hospital Association, said during the panel that the state needs to invest more into its health care workforce. He pointed to states like Michigan, where “they are investing a lot of money in their health care workforce right now,” as an example of how Wisconsin is competing to attract health care workers to the state and keep them here once they arrive.
Gina Dennik-Champion, CEO of the Wisconsin Nurses Association, echoed that sentiment, calling the shortage of health care workers in the state a “huge” challenge. She said one way to address the shortage is ensuring there are professionals in place to train emerging health care workers.
“We can't grow our number of nurses if we don't have the faculty in place,” she said.
Staffing shortages are also affecting nursing homes and long-term care facilities, said LeadingAge Wisconsin CEO John Sauer. He estimated that a dozen nursing homes have closed in Wisconsin since the start of the year, and that about 25% of beds at nursing homes and long-term care facilities are vacant right now, “even though there's a growing need for our caring services.”
“It comes down to staffing,” Sauer said, adding that facilities being able to better invest in staff will help address employee churn and open up capacity.
Another area where lawmakers could work together, the lobbyists said, is addressing a backlog of licensing applications at the Department of Safety and Professional Services.
DSPS has faced an influx in license applications in recent years, as more professions are required to be licensed in Wisconsin and more people move to the state, an agency official told a legislative committee hearing in March.
Michael Tierney, legislative liaison for DSPS, told committee members during that hearing that lawmakers need to approve more full-time staff for DSPS in order for the agency to address its long backlog of license applications.
Tierney reported that DSPS has just one staff member for every 27,500 license applications the department receives.
He also said the number of applications the department receives is at an all-time high. During the state budget period that started in 2013, for example, DSPS received 57,000 initial licensure applications, according to data included in Tierney’s testimony. By the end of the two-year budget period ending next summer, Tierney said the department will have received 144,000 such applications.
Borgerding said he is hopeful there could be bipartisan consensus about “licensure and regulatory reform” in the upcoming legislative session.
“I think it's an area that is really ripe for change and reform,” he said, but cautioned that even though the issue is easy to identify, a solution will be complicated because there are many outside groups affected by the process.
But he said there are signs agreement can be reached. Borgerding pointed to a change made during the COVID-19 pandemic that allows health care professionals licensed and in good standing in another state to apply and immediately be approved for their license in Wisconsin as an example that lawmakers can get together to make changes.
While implementation of that law has been challenging, he said it shows people are willing to engage on the issue.
With Wisconsin projected to have a $6.6 billion surplus come the end of the current fiscal year, lawmakers will negotiate over the next several months to decide how to spend those dollars for next biennium’s budget.