News 10 Investigation: Price of travel nurses skyrocketing

Hospitals spending millions more to keep caring for patients
Price of traveling nurses skyrocketing
Published: Feb. 14, 2022 at 2:36 PM EST
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LANSING, Mich. (WILX) - Hospitals across the country are facing a new health crisis, the price of nurses. Many hospitals are using traveling nurses to fill gaps caused by the nursing shortage, but the price for those nurses is skyrocketing.

Sparrow Hospital spends more than $200 an hour for each traveling nurse to help cover shifts. That’s a dramatic jump from the $75 an hour it was paying before the pandemic.

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It’s not just Sparrow seeing the jump, but hospitals across the country. Now, Congress is asking the White House to investigate.

“You cannot see the amount of death that we have and just be ok holding it all inside,” said Lydia Mobley, a travel nurse from Michigan.

She’s one of the thousands of nurses helping hospitals fight the COVID pandemic.

“All the time we get patients who, right up until they’re admitted to the hospital that COVID wasn’t real, or they didn’t think it would affect them. Now, they’re in the ICU and very near to death,” Mobley said.

But those traveling nurses come at a price.

“Yes the volume is higher, but the cost per volume is extraordinary,” said Alan Vierling, Sparrow Hospital President.

More than 600 nurses quit their jobs at Sparrow since the pandemic began more than 700 days ago. Some get burned out, while others work for temporary staffing agencies.

“It’s so lucrative for a nurse to travel today. That they can pick up and leave here and go travel someplace else,” said Vierling.

That’s because travel nurses can make a lot more money. Vierling said it paid $25 million for travel nurses in 2021. That’s $20 million more than what the hospital paid in 2019.

“So do you spend as much money on Capital? Probably not. Do you look towards expansion as rapidly as you would in some areas? Probably not. Now the impact the patient rarely would see it,” said Vierling.

It’s not just Sparrow, McLaren and Henry Ford are having to pay significantly more to staff hospitals.

“We hear reports of nurse staffing rate wages more than $100 an hour a hundred and fifty dollars an hour. We are competing with other areas of the country that report $200 an hour and Beyond,” said Laura Appel, Michigan Health & Hospital Association senior vice president of health policy and innovation.

She acknowledges the latest COVID surge created a stronger demand as health care workers also got sick. But Appel is worried these staffing agencies are taking advantage of the nursing shortage during a pandemic.

“I also think that there is profit-taking and perhaps even inappropriate pricing happening from staffing agencies. We Were part of an effort by the American Hospital Association to send a letter from our members of Congress to the White House Coronavirus Taskforce asking them to look into the practices of staffing agencies,” said Appel.

About 200 members of Congress signed that bi-partisan letter, including representatives Ellisa Slotkin and Tim Walberg. The letter claims staffing agencies are making a larger profit since the need for temporary nurses is up across the country. Yet the American Staffing Association, which represents many of the traveling nursing agencies, said that’s not the case.

The association’s vice president of government affairs, Toby Marlara, the prices are up because of supply and demand.

“We’ve watched the demand for nurses rise the supply drop and temporary nurses are demanding higher wages to go work in these situations literally putting their lives on the line often traveling away from home to be in these facilities that need help to care for these patients,” said Marlara.

Marlara said 75% of the cost hospitals pay for traveling nurses is what it costs the agency to employ that nurse. So it includes things like housing, taxes, and the nurse’s salary.

The company keeps 25% for profit, which stayed the same through the pandemic.

Marlara said these agencies are having to pay nurses because they are short just like hospitals.

“We were hit with omicron and we were hit right around the holidays with it and all of a sudden now, everybody was had to ramp back up,” Marlara.

Marlara said money isn’t the only reason he’s seeing people choose to be traveling nurses.

“Through a staffing agency either as a per diem nurse or a traveler because they were able to control their schedule. They were able to take breaks when they needed to recharge but still be there and play a vital role in the recovery of America from this pandemic,” said Marlara.

It’s not all bad news. Sparrow said traveling nurses are also a way to recruit and fill some of the long-term voids.

“We’ve had nurses coming here and take full-time jobs. To be a Sparrow nurse because of the people they work with and the people they were working for and because the opportunity to live in mid- Michigan,” said Vierling.

Like Lydia Mobley, who got into nursing to help others. She said the past two years have been tough on nurses, but she’s grateful to be there for her patients in the time they need her the most.

“I really want to help. I feel like my neighbors, my Michigan neighbors. That’s why I want to help the most,” said Mobley.

News 10 asked Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office they are investing price gouging by any temporary nurse staffing agency in the state.

A spokeswoman said they are aware of the concerns, but there isn’t an active investigation at the state level. Smaller hospitals are also trying to keep up with the costs.

Hillsdale Hospital said it’s on track to spend more than $826,000 on travel nurses this fiscal year, which is about doubled from last year.

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