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LaHood hears concerns about rural hospital staffing shortages

U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood and staff at Hopedale Medical Complex
Eric Stock
U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood met Friday with staff and administrators at Hopedale Medical Complex about staffing and other pandemic-related challenges.

As COVID-19 continues to strain rural hospitals, staff and administrators at one Tazewell County hospital asked what could be done in Washington to help with their staffing challenges.

Hospitals everywhere are struggling to find enough workers to fill their shifts. The worker shortage is even greater at rural hospitalswhere the hiring pool is more shallow.

Emily Whitson, chief operating officer at Hopedale Medical Center in Tazewell County, said the last six weeks of the pandemic have been the worst and for some health care workers, it's just too much.

“When you add on that stress, that’s going to increase the number of people that are leaving, which I think every (hospital) has been experiencing,” Whitson said.

Central Illinois U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Dunlap, met with the medical staff at Hopedale Medical Center on Friday to listen to the staffing concerns of medical staff and administrators.

Hopedale Medical Complex
Eric Stock
Hopedale Medical Complex

LaHood said he's heard from hospital administrators who say the federal COVID vaccine mandate for health care workers is contributing to staffing shortages.

“That’s caused people to leave the workforce to pursue other opportunities and the inflexibility on that is part of the labor shortage and that’s frustrating to them,” LaHood said.

But Whitson said the vaccine mandate hasn't been as much of a factor for her staff of about 320. She said 74% of them are vaccinated, adding most of the 80-plus workers who aren't vaccinated cited religious or medical exemptions. Whitson said the hospital generally accepted those requests to keep them on the job.

“There’s a lot of places that are more hard line than us, but we just can’t afford to do that,” she said, adding those who are unvaccinated continue weekly coronavirus testing.

Rural hospitals also have dealt with the added challenge of a less-vaccinated population. The COVID vaccination rate in Tazewell County is 55.2%. The state average is 61.3%.

Whitson said Hopedale Medical Center may bring back asymptomatic workers sooner after they test positive for the coronavirus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recently allowed short-staffed hospitals to do that.

“That’s something that’s at the end of the line with the CDC guidelines, if it comes down to it and you have to take care of patients, a COVID positive person may have to work,” Whitson said.

Whitson said she'd like to the see the federal government create incentives for health care workers to work in rural areas. LaHood said he supports a bill to offer tax credits to help rural hospitals hire more workers and pay them better.

“I think we have to look at the federal level on how we incentivize, how we help give relief to rural hospitals,” said LaHood, adding Gov. JB Pritzker's move to send thousands of health care workers to hospitals across the state is just a "band-aid."

Whitson said Hopedale Medical Center has seldom used travel nurses to cover shifts, saying the hospital can’t afford them. She said the hospital has received about $2 million in federal COVID relief, but that money is nearly all been spent, and noting its COVID-related expenses far exceed that.

She also said Hopedale Medical Complex has been able to maintain elective surgeries and other non-emergency care, but she said if the surge continues, it may have to scale back some non-elective operations.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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