Lt. Gov. Sara Rodriguez at a news conference held to highlight provisions in Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed Wisconsin budget that address the health care workforce. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)
Wisconsin nurses and health care workers — including Lt. Gov. Sara Rodriguez — took to the Capitol steps Tuesday to call on state lawmakers to preserve or restore health care provisions in Gov. Tony Evers’ original state budget proposal.
“The governor’s budget has many areas where we can really bolster the [health care] workforce in Wisconsin,” Rodriguez, a public health nurse by profession before she entered politics, said at a press conference organized by SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin.
She listed $100 million in proposed grants to train more health care workers and smaller sums for nursing training and recruiting and retaining certified nursing assistants, the primary nursing home workforce — all part of Evers’ budget introduced in February. “Unfortunately, Republicans stripped over 540 provisions from the budget, many of those that I just talked about,” Rodriguez said.
The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee also deleted Evers’ latest bid to expand Medicaid with federal subsidies under the Affordable Care Act — “which we know 70% of Wisconsinites approve,” Rodriguez said. “We would save $1.6 billion if we expanded Medicaid here in Wisconsin, and now we are just one of 10 states that have not expanded Medicaid and brought those federal dollars home.”
SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin represents employees in hospitals and nursing homes as well as home health care workers. The union timed Tuesday’s news conference to mark National Nurses Week, May 6-12, while weighing in on the budget.
“We elect officials to fight for us, to be our voices,” said Demetria Shipp, a Milwaukee home health care worker. “That’s what we’re expecting. And we want to hold them accountable for everything that we deserve as health care workers.”
Lisa Gordon, a Monroe nursing home employee, said watching residents suffering from COVID-19 was “absolutely heartbreaking.” She contracted the illness twice, she said, and many nursing home employees left “out of fear, frustration and exhaustion.”
Staff shortages persist. With responsibility for anywhere from 20 to 40 patients in an eight-hour shift, “I have between 90 seconds and three minutes per hour per resident,” Gordon said. “This is shameful.”
Pat Raes, a Madison hospital nurse and SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin president, said the state should invest in expanding the nursing and health care workforce. She noted a widely circulated forecast that the state will have 20,000 fewer nurses than it needs by 2035, while the number of Wisconsin residents older than 60 is 1.4 million and growing.
“The governor has laid out a plan supporting health care workers, and we want to see state legislators preserve and expand his proposal,” Raes said.
The health union’s priority list includes continuing a 5% rate increase for Home- and Community-Based Services, including home health care and support services, for people who are elderly or have disabilities. The increase has been funded by the federal American Rescue Plan Act but will run out after this year.
To continue the increase with additional federal help, Wisconsin will have to budget $88.9 million in state funds over two years, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. So far that is not among the items that the Joint Finance Committee has removed from the budget. The state’s price tag is slightly higher than it would be if Wisconsin accepted the federal Medicaid expansion, however, according to the fiscal bureau.
Another of Evers’ proposals is to put $621,000 toward a pilot program in Dane County to address mental health in the health care professions. The Joint Finance Committee has already pulled that from the budget.
Nurses and other health care workers “have witnessed more patient deaths than ever before in our careers,” said UW Health nurse Alex Dudek. “The physical and mental toll of this trauma has caused many nurses, some that I know, to leave the bedside altogether. This worsens our staffing crisis. Meanwhile our cries for help have gone unheard by many politicians, despite our best efforts.”
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