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Legislators seek to cap pay for health staff

As hospitals and nursing homes turn to staffing agencies to replace burned-out workers, some politicians in Harrisburg are looking to cap employees’ pay in a bid to save the facilities money.

In a flurry of letters and legislative proposals in recent weeks, U.S. and state lawmakers in both parties have questioned the pay offered for temporary medical workers employed by staffing agencies. The agencies act as intermediaries, providing nurses and other workers on short-term contracts for rates higher than those paid to full-time workers.

“The situation is urgent and the reliance on temporary workers has caused normal staffing costs to balloon in all areas of the country,” a large group of congressional representatives wrote in a Jan. 24 letter to a top federal coronavirus official. We “have received reports that the nurse staffing agencies are vastly inflating (prices) by two, three or more times pre-pandemic rates, and then taking 40 percent or more of the amount being charged to the hospitals for themselves in profits.”

The letter — which doesn’t propose specific policy fixes — was signed by most of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, including Rep. John Joyce, R-13th District, Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-15th District, and Rep. Fred Keller, R-12th District.

The signatories asked federal officials to investigate whether the high rates violate consumer protection laws.

That same week, a group of long-term care agencies sent a similar letter to the White House’s coronavirus team.

“Providers have little choice but to pay the exorbitant prices, and hope that the nurse-staffing agency does not poach their current staff,” the agencies said.

While the letter’s signatories blamed profiteering by the staffing companies, some proposed solutions would effectively cap the pay offered to individual workers. That would keep nurses and other workers from being paid above a government-set ceiling, despite shortages and rising demand.

On Jan. 27, state Rep. Timothy Bonner, R-Mercer, proposed a bill that would set hourly pay caps for workers sent by staffing agencies to long-term facilities like nursing homes. The cap would stand at 150 percent of the average statewide pay rate for similar workers, including administrative costs incurred by the agencies.

In a letter to colleagues in November, Bonner said Pennsylvania nursing homes had reported an 18 percent drop in staff, with the overwhelming majority reporting ongoing shortages.

“(Staffing) agencies have seized on the pandemic and the critical need for workers, and have raised their hourly rates to 100 percent, 200 percent or even 400 percent above the current median wage rate within these long-term care facilities,” Bonner said. “Not only that, staffing agencies are recruiting full-time employees from the same long-term care facilities where they’re sending temporary staff.”

Bonner’s bill hasn’t yet made it through the House Health Committee. Lawmakers in several other states have already proposed similar caps.

Nurses and other health care workers have cited widespread burnout and overwork through the pandemic, particularly with the omicron variant raising pressure on providers. Walkouts and strike threats have hit hospitals and nursing homes in the past two years.

In November, UPMC workers in Pittsburgh walked out for a day to demand higher pay and better conditions.

Senator would ban no-vaccine fees

A state senator aims to ban health insurance providers from charging higher rates to customers who don’t get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Sen. Michele Brooks, R-Crawford, said this week that she’ll propose a bill to bar insurers from what she called “health insurance discrimination” based on vaccine status.

“Health insurers are implementing cost-control measures, such as increasing premiums, for those unvaccinated for COVID-19,” Brooks said.

While federal law already bars charging higher premiums for most health conditions, some employers have issued surcharges for employees who fail to get vaccinated. Last year, some large employers like Delta Air Lines began issuing the additional fees — an extra $200 per month, in Delta’s case — for workers who refused.

Lawmakers in other states are working to ban employers and insurers from learning about residents’ vaccine status. With a wide majority of the U.S. population at least partially vaccinated, protections for those who refuse have become a culture-war battleground.

Last month, South Carolina legislators proposed a bill making it a crime for representatives of “a public, nonprofit, or private entity” to ask anyone whether they’re vaccinated against the disease. And a new proposal in Virginia would ban public entities from asking about vaccination status or using the information to provide services.

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Ryan Brown covers statewide politics for Ogden Newspapers. He can be reached at rbrown@altoonamirror.com.

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