Travel nurse pay doubled, and in some cases tripled, during the pandemic as staff shortages increased rapidly and healthcare providers needed additional support.
The sizable salaries travel nurses command have prompted some nurses to leave steady, full-time jobs for travel nursing, worsening the workforce shortage for hospitals. Some hospitals are now using COVID-19 relief funds to pay for travel staff and nursing, and Texas reportedly used billions of relief funds to cover travel nurse costs.
ASC owners are also feeling the pinch. Surgery centers are unable to compete with travel nurse salaries or hospitals offering six-figure sign-on bonuses and higher wages to attract talent. They instead rely on a more stable 8 a.m.-to-5 p.m. schedule for nurses, with no night or weekend shifts, as an advantage of working there.
"Staffing costs are through the roof. We are a cardiac-only facility, and our staff are highly specialized," said Brock Kreienbrink, MSN, RN, administrator and director of nursing for Outpatient Surgery Center of Central Florida in Wildwood. "COVID-19 has created travel opportunities for these employees at unheard-of prices. The combination of staff leaving our market at significant levels and the increase of ASCs/catheterization labs/hospitals in our market is draining the staffing pool — which is causing major inflation in the staffing cost to compete for these employees."
At the end of January, almost 200 members of the House of Representatives asked the White House to investigate the high charges from nurse staffing agencies. The lawmakers accused the agencies of taking advantage of increased demand during the pandemic to boost profits and want the White House to determine if the agencies are violating consumer protection laws.
A letter the members of Congress sent to the White House said in some cases the staffing agencies have taken 40 percent or more of the hospital charges for profits.
Several organizations, including the American Hospital Association, also wrote a letter to the White House's COVID-19 response team coordinator Jeffrey Zients asking for an investigation into staffing agencies. The letter asked the White House to focus on staffing agencies and not the employed nurses, and it doesn't mention a salary cap. But Deb Meyer, RN, administrator of Skyline Surgery Center in Pocatello, Idaho, would welcome traveler pay caps.
"Currently, we are in a wage war due to healthcare worker shortages. Healthcare workers are in such demand and can get paid nearly quadruple to work as a traveler within their own communities. This makes finding loyal employees harder and harder," she said.
Some states are taking the issue into their own hands. California adopted a policy earlier this year that affirms out-of-state nurses would not be able to work in the state without a temporary or permanent California nursing license. The policy goes into effect March 31, when the state's Emergency Medical Provision Authority expires.