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Minnesota to spend $40M in an effort to triage hospital staffing crisis

Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday said the state would use federal funding to hire temporary health care staff to deploy around the state. Minnesota hospitals said the backup was welcome as they reported staff vacancies fueled by the omicron variant.

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Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, spoke to reporters outside of Regions Hospital in St. Paul about the state's latest efforts to bolster health care staff in Minnesota.
Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL — Minnesota is set to spend $40 million to deploy temporary staffing teams to hospitals around the state, Gov. Tim Walz announced Wednesday, Jan. 12.

Assuming a state legislative panel signs off, the federal funds will help fill staffing gaps spurred by the omicron variant and ease pressure on health care systems that said they're filled to capacity with COVID-19 patients and those requiring care for other serious illnesses or injuries.

"This is going to be another move in the triage situation to put more folks on the ground," Walz told reporters outside Regions Hospital in St. Paul Wednesday.

Ahead of what many health experts say could be the most dire chapter of the pandemic, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the funds would allow the state to contract more than 350 health care professionals to work 60 hours a week for 60 days.

The extra staffing is set to be spread out "strategically" to the facilities with the greatest level of need, state officials said. Malcolm said Minnesota planned to contract with a staffing service that would bring in nurses with Minnesota licenses, and that service wouldn't pull nurses from area hospitals.

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Malcolm said she would also use emergency authority to waive licensing fees and restrictions for hospitals and allow nursing homes to open up additional bed space and more easily transfer patients.

“We are going to be in some really constrained circumstances in these next few weeks," Malcolm said. "We are hopeful that it’s a rapid rise and a rapid decline, but these next few weeks are going to be something that we’ve not seen before in Minnesota ever in most of our entire careers, this degree of capacity challenge in our health care system."

The state interventions are the latest in a series aimed at keeping hospitals up and running despite an ongoing surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

Minnesota officials have also called in federal medical teams to aid two health care facilities, activated Minnesota National Guard members to train and work as nursing assistants and opened alternative care facilities to free up more space in emergency rooms and intensive care units. Walz also said he would use $40 million in American Rescue Plan funds to boost the state's COVID-19 testing systems.

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President and CEO of HealthPartners Andrea Walsh spoke to reporters outside of Regions Hospital in St. Paul on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022.
Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

The health care staffing supports would provide a "material difference," as providers attempt to press on without enough workers to meet demand, hospital leaders said. HealthPartners CEO and President Andrea Walsh said Regions Hospital had 90 openings for Registered Nurses on Wednesday and more than 1,000 of its 26,000 employees were out sick.

“Our team is stretched, our care teams have taken extra shifts, they’re working longer hours, going above and beyond month after month and it isn’t sustainable," Walsh said. "We need additional staff."

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President and CEO of CentraCare Dr. Kenneth Holmen on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, spoke to reporters outside of Regions Hospital in St. Paul. State officials at the news conference announced a $40 million proposal to boost staffing at Minnesota hospitals.<br/>
Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

Dr. Kenneth Holmen, president and CEO of CentraCare, said the staffing supports would aid health care workers juggling significant responsibilities.

“It provides much-needed resources, help and an emotional lift to our staff who are significantly burdened,” Holmen said.

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State and hospital system leaders also urged Minnesotans to get vaccinated against COVID-19, get their booster shots, use masks in indoor situations and stay home if they feel sick.

Also on Wednesday, legislative leaders exchanged letters about the needs facing Minnesota hospitals and the best way to help them.

Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, on Wednesday said Walz should call lawmakers to the Capitol for a special session to approve an out-of-state nursing licensing compact and policies waiving regulations around hospital hiring.

Walz months earlier said he would call a special session if lawmakers could reach an agreement on a set of regulatory rollbacks and policies aimed at assisting health care facilities. His office on Wednesday asked that legislators approve the funding requests he put forward and said they were glad to see Senate Republicans engaging on COVID-19 issues.

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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