Tennessee Hospitals Say They Need More Money To Compete With Neighboring States For Nurses

Sep 3, 2021

Credit Blake Farmer | WPLN

Tennessee has reopened a fund to help hospitals fly in temporary nurses as they’re short on staff. But hospitals are finding that there’s not much money left, even though the shortage is more critical than when they needed staffing help during the winter surge.

It’s a competition between hard-hit states where hospitals are overwhelmed and understaffed. Texas has a Texas-sized program. Mississippi has committed $10 million a week to bring in a thousand travel nurses. Meanwhile, Tennessee has $10 million total remaining from what was originally a $100 million fund.

“The money, thus far, that the state has committed to is not putting us into a position where we can compete very well,” says Dr. Wendy Long, the CEO of the Tennessee Hospital Association.

To preserve the money, the Tennessee Department of Health has raised the criteria for a hospital to get staffing help. They have to be using 90% of their floor beds, and 25% have to be COVID positive. Two weeks ago, 17 hospitals qualified statewide. Now, 35 do — nearly doubling.

A health department spokesperson says the state is looking for other COVID relief money that could be redirected to hospital staffing, as the number of COVID patients sets new records each day. Even with the tighter restrictions on who can use the money, the state would spend an estimated $52 million by the end of the year.

Hospital officials say they’re “optimistic” that the state will find the money. As states subsidize staffing for hospitals, it’s pushed the rate for travel ICU nurses as has high as $10,000 a week.

Hospitals can also tap the fund to reimburse retention bonuses for existing nurses, Long says.

“The No. 1 priority is doing everything you can to retain the staff you have,” she says. “But virtually every hospital is in the position of needing to supplement that, even if you’re successful in keeping everybody.”