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Maine plans to address health care worker shortage via initiatives aimed at recruitment, advancement

The new programs aim to make it more affordable for people to become health care professionals and make it easier to advance in their careers once they do.

AUGUSTA, Maine — EDITOR'S NOTE: The video above aired Oct. 13, 2021.

Health care worker shortages across Maine have led some hospitals to scale back services in recent weeks. This isn't a new issue in Maine, but the pandemic has only made it worse. 

On Monday, Gov. Janet Mills announced new initiatives by her administration aimed at encouraging people to pursue health care jobs in Maine and strengthening the state’s health care workforce.

The new programs the state plans to implement aim to make it more affordable for people to become health care professionals and make it easier to advance in their careers once they do. The programs will be launched at the end of the year, according to Mills.

Mills said her administration is pursuing tuition support programs for health care professionals. The programs will provide financial support, through scholarships and student loan relief, for example, to allow more people to become doctors, nurses, behavioral health specialists, long term care professionals, and others starting at the end of this year. According to Mills, the tuition support programs will be backed by $4 million from the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan.

For people already working in the health care field, the governor announced a program to help them gain skills and advance with their employer. Mills said the new “tuition remission” program gives health care workers the ability to earn credentials while on the job to help them advance in the profession.

Mills' administration is also launching a new $1.5 million recruitment effort, with $1 million dedicated to promoting the value of work in health care and encouraging young people to enter careers in health care.

According to Mills, the other $500,000 will be dedicated specifically to promoting direct care worker jobs, such as aides for older Mainers or individuals with disabilities. This effort will be supplemented by another $600,000 to launch Maine’s Health Care Career Navigators, who will be charged with helping people interested in health care jobs figure out the best career path for them, according to the governor.

RELATED: York Hospital in Wells temporarily suspends emergency services due to staffing shortages

"Through these forthcoming initiatives, we want to make it easier and more affordable for people, especially young people, to pursue careers in health care and continue to move up the career ladder into higher-paying jobs because they provide tremendous opportunity to do life-saving work and make a good wage with good benefits," Mills said Monday. "We look forward to launching these programs at the end of the year, which will help Maine people and strengthen our health care workforce in the long-run.”

In coming weeks, Mills said her administration will continue to announce more Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan investments to address known, systemic challenges that have negatively impacted Maine’s ability to grow and thrive, with priority focus on investments to grow and develop the state’s workforce.

Funding for the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan is through the federal American Rescue Plan Act, which allocated $4.5 billion in stimulus funds to Maine earlier this year.

RELATED: 'It’s hurting this state and it’s hurting everyone': Years-long staffing shortages continue to affect Maine health care

“The COVID-19 pandemic has put a tremendous strain on Maine's nursing homes and assisted living communities and has made longstanding workforce shortages worse,” Angela Westhoff, president and CEO of the Maine Health Care Association, said in a release Monday“Our members are very concerned about staffing shortages as more burned-out caregivers exit the profession and fewer people enter it. MHCA is pleased to partner with the Administration on tangible solutions that will encourage, incentivize, and cultivate the next generation of Maine's health care professionals.”

“The past year has been like any other in terms of the range and complexity of challenges faced by Maine hospitals,” Steven Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association, said in a release. “Our members are experiencing unprecedented hardships and we look forward to continuing our work with the Governor and her Administration on how to support Maine’s hospitals. The initiatives announced today will attract more people to health professions, help retain current workers, and position our hospitals to keep providing high-quality care now and into the future.”

RELATED: Shortage of emergency workers 'not new'

Demi Kouzounas, chair of the Maine Republican Party, responded to Mills' announcement in a statement posted to Twitter Monday. Kouzounas said Mills "brought an empty fire extinguisher to a house she herself set on fire."

Rep. Joshua Morris, lead Republican on the Maine Legislature's Health Coverage, Insurance and Financial Services Committee, also released a statement following the governor's announcement Monday.

"This plan is a partial long-term solution at best. My constituents are facing less access to health care right this second, and this announcement does nothing to address that," Morris said. "It's time for Governor Mills to face reality: we have a problem now and she has the ability to fix it now. We have people qualified and ready to work now, and her mandate is the only thing that stands in the way. She needs to put her partisan ideology aside and get back to thinking about the scared Mainers trying to access healthcare across this state."

Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston announced two weeks ago that it would scale back pediatric and trauma admissions due to a lack of staffing. York Hospital in Wells similarly announced last week that it would temporarily suspend emergency services for the same reason.

Eric Wellman, a professor of emergency medical services at Southern Maine Community College, recently told NEWS CENTER Maine they've seen enrollment in their EMS training programs drop by about 20% over the last decade. 

Wellman said that's just part of the decline in EMS workers that has been hurting Maine's more rural areas first, but now is extending into cities. Reasons range from pay versus reward to workplace changes and more demands on emergency providers. 

"What would it take for you to work nights, holidays, weekends on a rotating schedule, to be exposed to psychological trauma, to be exposed to death situations, and tend to be exposed to infectious disease and other things that can harm you, sleep deprivation?" Wellman asked.

It turns out, in some cases, the hourly wage for EMS workers in Maine is minimum wage. 

"With EMT wages we see them range from anywhere from basic minimum wage, so no higher than what minimum wage is, and in some cases, you can get up as high as $20 to $23 an hour," he said, although he added that range is usually in paid towns that require employees to be both an EMT and a firefighter.

RELATED: UPDATE: CMMC temporarily suspends pediatric, trauma admissions citing staffing issues

"Some of my neighbors in the north have talked about that, that people are leaving EMS altogether because they can get a job at Walmart for higher pay or McDonald’s or Walgreens," he said. "And these are good jobs in the sense that they pay a good wage, but they have substantially less responsibility for what is expected out of you, out of your 40-hour work week."

Wellman said he's been involved in conversations about battling the emergency worker shortage in ambulances and in hospitals for at least five years, and it's a problem that isn't going away.

He said the pandemic has only made the problem worse as workers are filling overtime shifts to cover for those who are sick or in quarantine or are choosing to retire early. Those EMS workers are also seeing sicker patients and more death than normal. 

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