Maine's reeling health workforce gets $14M in aid, but programs won't start until winter

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Oct. 25—Maine will spend $14 million more in federal aid to bolster health care employment, although programs unveiled on Monday by Gov. Janet Mills will not begin to kick in until later this year as the state faces an immediate workforce crisis hammering the sector.

That pool of money in the Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan, which is funded by nearly $1 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act, is meant to address recruitment and retention. The bulk of the health care money will provide scholarships, student loan relief and professional advancement reimbursement as well as $1.5 million aimed at promoting jobs in the sector.

But the programs will be launched in the winter and spring, showing the limits of recent federal aid to address the challenges pressing health care providers as they juggle unusually busy hospitals coupled with burned-out staff and ongoing labor challenges. Industry experts said the funds will be critical to helping strengthen the workforce in the long run.

"We are eventually going to get through this pandemic," said Darcy Shargo, CEO of the Maine Primary Care Association, "and we need a workforce that is trained and available to handle that once we're there."

The announcement came four days before Mills' COVID-19 vaccine mandate was to be enforced across the health care sector. Vaccination rates across providers spiked by late September as the deadline drew closer, with all sectors tracked by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention showing rates above 84 percent as of Sept. 30. But effects vary by region and facility and even a small amount of departing staff could challenge providers.

The health care sector has been among the most challenged by the pandemic, accounting for nearly 12 percent of pandemic job losses in Maine as of September, according to state data. COVID-19 hospitalizations remained near record levels after a one-day surge between Sunday and Monday after declining from a period of jammed intensive care units in the summer.

Staffing problems across the sector have existed long before the pandemic, but they have come to a head as several hospitals have resorted to diversion tactics with the most severe service disruptions coming at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. Several nursing homes have also announced plans to close, with many operating at diminished capacity, which makes it harder to get patients out of hospitals and into rehab beds.

Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew pointed to $60 million in temporary pay increases to health providers meant to help attract workers in the long term. She defended the mandate, saying it would help providers by reducing the amount of workers who have to quarantine if exposed to the virus.

MaineGeneral CEO Chuck Hays said his hospital was able to double the size of its certified nursing assistant classes with that funding. He said CNAs often go on to pursue nursing licenses, something the hospital could use the new funding to expand.

"I think it's extremely helpful in really building our numbers up, but also educating folks on the next step in their clinical ladder," he said.

Republicans slammed the funding as missing the urgency of the moment. Rep. Joshua Morris, R-Turner, a member of the Legislature's health insurance committee, called it a "partial long-term solution at best" and called on the governor to relax her vaccine mandate.

"My constituents are facing less access to health care right this second, and this announcement does nothing to address that," he said in a statement.

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