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Wisconsin’s hospitals are relying heavily on travel nurses and paying top dollar to staff their institutions

The pandemic and delayed medical care have increased demand as nurses in Wisconsin and elsewhere leave the profession

A registered nurse fills a syringe with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine
A Northwell Health registered nurse fills a syringe with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up vaccination site inside the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center, Thursday, April 8, 2021, in the Staten Island borough of New York. Ahead of Ramadan, Islamic leaders are using social media, virtual town halls and face-to-face discussions to spread the word that it’s acceptable for Muslims to be vaccinated during daily fasting that happens during the holy month. Mary Altaffer/AP Photos

As new cases of COVID-19 rise to levels not seen since January, Wisconsin hospitals are hiring more temporary staff than they did during the surge last fall and winter.

“This is another dynamic that has been greatly exacerbated this time around,” said Wisconsin Hospital Association President and CEO Eric Borgerding. “The price of agency staff is going through the roof.”

On average, acute care travel nurses can make between $55 to $110 per hour depending on the acuity of their patients, location and specialty they’re servicing, said Premier Medical Staffing Services owner Laura Hanoski.

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Those wages are encouraging retired nurses to reenter the workforce, and pushing working nurses to quit their regular jobs with a hospital to become a travel nurse, the owner of the Milwaukee staffing agency said.

“They’re chasing money, which is sad to say. But on the flip side, it’s really good for the community that’s having the crisis and needs help,” Hanoski said.

State health officials have cautioned that hospitals are filling up, while also urging people to get vaccinated against both the flu and COVID-19, and to wear a mask indoors around strangers.

“Our overall hospital capacity is strained. We’ve lost a lot of health care workers,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the state Department of Health Services Bureau of Communicable Diseases, Wednesday. “We’ve had early retirements. People are tired. Our hospitals are doing amazing work — we’re able to take care of extremely sick patients and provide high levels of care — but our capacity to do so is finite.”

Hospitals can move patients to different areas to accommodate demand, which has increased not only from COVID-19, but more recently because of other medical care patients may have delayed during the pandemic.

Having enough staff to care for these patients has caused rates for travel nurses to skyrocket in some parts of the country.

Four U.S. representatives have written to the White House to see if the actions of certain staffing agencies charging “extreme prices” in West Virginia, California, Arizona and Louisiana violates consumer protection laws.

“We have received anecdotal reports that the nurse staffing agencies are vastly inflating price, by two, three or more times pre-pandemic rates, and then taking 40% or more of the amount being charged to the hospitals for themselves in profits,” wrote U.S. Reps. David McKinley, of West Virginia; Bill Cassidy, of Louisiana; Mark Kelly, of Arizona; and Doris Matsui, of California.

High pay for temporary medical staff isn’t just a concern for hospitals, it’s also worrisome for the companies that provide nurses and other health care workers.

“We want them to take 13-week contracts, but we don’t want them leaving because they can make a dollar or two more somewhere else,” said Hanoski.