NY programs aim to bolster and reinforce health care industry

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WGRZ/WHEC) — The health care industry here in Western New York and around the state was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and its lingering effects.

But staffing problems started even before then.

Now the state hopes to turn it around with new programs to keep staff and bring new people on board.

Gov. Kathy Hochul summed up her approach to health care workers this way: "Doing much more than just saying ‘thank you’ for the past, we’ll also invest in you in the future."

Hochul’s efforts are meant to boost the morale of health care and mental hygiene workers across the state, who have been so affected by short staffing and other issues related to COVID.

That would especially be nurses. They have been seen on picket lines in recent years, and then there are others who just decided to retire early with pandemic stress. In fact, there are currently 9,300 registered nurse job openings around the state.

Also, there is the factor of so-called travel nurse agencies that draw people away with much higher salaries for temporary out-of-state assignments.

So health care is hurting, according to former nurse and Catholic Health Chief of Business Development and EVP Joyce Markiewicz.

"Catholic Health, like every other health system, is really struggling as it relates to recruitment and proper staffing levels, and it’s not just at the hospitals. It’s everywhere. It’s within our nursing homes, our home care areas," Markiewicz said.

Catholic Health, which even held an on-the-spot recruiting event for health care employees, is pleased to hear about the state’s plan to use $1.3 billion in state Medicaid funding to provide, through employers, retention and recruitment bonuses. They would range from $500 to $3,000 for staffers deemed eligible.

And there’s a deeper understanding of the issue.

"Even before the pandemic, we saw signs that the need for health care workers, back in 2018, would grow by 32 percent over the next few years, between then and 2020 and the next decade. So we saw that effect coming already," Hochul said.

Markiewicz also points out, "The average age of a nurse is 50, so just think what’s going to happen in the next 10 years. We’re going to lose a large portion of our workforce."

And now there is the state’s additional move offering 1,000 scholarships for four-year nursing degrees at state universities to increase the health care workforce by 20 percent over five years.

Originally, the state says tens of thousands applied.

"There’s so many people that just can’t afford to pay for a two-year or four-year tuition," Markiewicz said. "So opening up a scholarship program, you can see by the people who applied, how badly people would love to have that opportunity.

"So we were really excited to hear about the thousand scholarships that have been awarded."

Markiewicz says she is also pleased to see more money directed to increase pay for nursing home staffers