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Tennessee hospitals join call for crackdown on alleged ‘price gouging’ by staffing agencies

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Staffing shortages continue to cripple some Tennessee hospitals dealing high COVID numbers among patients and their own staff. The pinch is being felt by both large medical centers and small rural hospitals.

More than a third of positions are vacant in the Camden and Bolivar hospitals owned by West Tennessee Healthcare. Nurses have been leaving to take higher-paying travel contracts with staffing agencies.

But now respiratory therapists — who monitor COVID patients on ventilators — are also getting lured away, said CEO Ruby Kirby.

“We cannot compete with the salaries that they are offering to recruit additional staffing,” she said, adding that her critical access hospitals now have half the respiratory therapists they need.

The American Hospital Association is asking the federal government to send more money from the dormant Provider Relief Fund to offset the expenses associated with bringing in traveling staff. The Henry Ford Health System in Michigan estimates it will spend $50 million just in the first quarter of the year, according to its CEO.

But hospitals are also prodding regulators to investigate their complaints of price gouging by staffing agencies. The companies take a cut of each travel nurse’s pay. The American Hospital Association accuses some of colluding to drive up rates.

“When you see price increases that are two or three or more times what they were before the pandemic, it’s fair to at least investigate about whether or not these companies are price gouging,” AHA general counsel Mindy Hatton said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters.

The AHA first sent a letter raising concerns last February. The FTC has not taken any recent action, according to a spokesperson.

The problem is only expected to worse. The American Nurses Association predicts another 500,000 nurses will leave the bedside this year, bringing the pandemic losses to 1.1 million.

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