Tennessee lawmakers are considering ways to provide financial incentives for nurses and health care staff to stay in the profession after medical staffing shortages highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sen. Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis, has filed a bill that would provide one-time payments of $1,500 to nurses, paramedics and EMTs who provided health care services during the pandemic. Another bill filed by Robinson would waive state licensure fees for health care professionals for the next four years.
Robinson, herself a registered nurse, said the goal of the legislation is to address the shortage of health care workers in the state.
“The pandemic has shown us how strained and shorthanded our health care system really is,” Robinson said. “This shortage should be addressed urgently, and one way to fix it quickly is by incentivizing and rewarding the very people who choose to stay here to work in our hospitals and remain dedicated to their home facilities.”
As COVID-19 cases spiked and hospital bed capacity ticked down, a top concern among state officials and the health care community was not beds for patients, but staff to care for them.
Nurses and medical staff were called out of retirement to help short-handed hospitals. Gov. Bill Lee activated medically trained members of the Tennessee National Guard to fill a staffing void.
Robinson’s bill directs the Tennessee Department of Health to provide the one-time payments, but the bill does not specify how to pay for them. There are more than 88,000 registered nurses in Tennessee, according to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, as well as more than 10,000 EMTs and nearly 5,000 paramedics.
Robinson said she leaned on her experience caring for COVID-19 patients last year in other states to understand the need to support the community of health care workers.
Robinson said she will not take advantage of the stipend or licensure fee waiver if her bills pass.
“It is meant only for those who work on Tennessee’s front lines,” Robinson said.
The health care staffing shortage is a topic of discussion among state officials as they consider how to spend the remaining federal pandemic relief money.
In a meeting of the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group on Tuesday, House Speaker Cameron Sexton indicated federal pandemic relief funds possibly could be used to provide incentives for nurses and health care workers.
“We know we have a shortage in the health care industry with nursing, potentially with physicians who want to go to family practice or general practice,” Sexton said.
While such a payment may be possible using pandemic relief dollars, federal guidance will constrain the timeline for how the money can be used.
“One-time stipends are a possibility,” Sexton told The Center Square, adding that staffing shortages need to be addressed across the industry.
“While programs like Tennessee Reconnect and Tennessee Promise provide pathways for students to advance their education and training, perhaps we can look at incentivizing them with these federal funds as they complete their degrees and enter the workforce,” Sexton said.
Lawmakers will reconvene in Nashville on Monday to resume the legislative session.
“Our health care workers have faced nearly a year’s worth of dark days,” Robinson said. “Their persistence and resolve to fight this pandemic should serve as an inspiration for the Legislature to fix this workforce shortage.”
Robinson stands indicted in federal court on 48 counts of wire fraud and embezzlement, and two charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering, unrelated to her work as a state senator.
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