Nursing homes face staff shortage

By Megan R. Harrell

Star Staff

In recent years, federal healthcare officials have honed in on neglect and abuse in nursing homes across the nation. Studies have been completed that show a relationship between cases of elder neglect and understaffed nursing facilities.
   A federal study ordered by Congress earlier this year showed that approximately 90 percent of nursing homes are understaffed. The U.S.Department of Health and Human Services completed the study, which estimates the cost of establishing proper staffing levels at nursing homes nationwide to be approximately $7.6 billion.
   "When there are not enough workers you just can't take care of a bunch of people. You just don't have the time to give them the quality of care that everybody would like to be able to give," one registered nurse at an Elizabethton nursing home said on condition of anonymity.
   The nurse added that shortages are felt the most when there are not enough certified nurse's assistants (CNA), because they actually provide residents with day to day care such as changing their bedding and clothes.
   CNAs are hard to come by in the field of nursing home healthcare. Administrators testified to the difficult tasks required of CNAs, and stated that it takes a special type of person to be able to complete the daily tasks associated with the job.
   It is often hard for nursing homes to keep qualified CNAs on staff because of the difficulty of the job, coupled with low compensation. It took health officials researching the shortage of workers at nursing homes eight years to conclude that understaffing has contributed to increases in the number of patients who suffer from bedsores, malnutrition, and extreme weight loss.
   The Department of Health and Human Services is now pushing for new standards that would result in residents at nursing homes receiving a minimum of two hours of care each day. Healthcare providers agree that more stringent standards would be impossible to establish without a significant increase in staff members at the facilities.
   Locally, administrators at nursing homes have not felt the effects of staffing shortages as acutely as the national study depicts. Officials at the Hermitage Health Center in Elizabethton said that the facility is not currently understaffed, and that there are 72 employees for the 70 residents receiving care.
   Jeannette Bradshaw, administrator at Hermitage, stated that the staffing situation at the facility continually varies, and that healthcare provider shortages are not isolated to nursing homes.
   "That is not just a nursing home problem, that is all over nursing," Bradshaw said. Bradshaw sees many factors that contribute to the difficulty of getting, and keeping, good healthcare providers.
   "For the younger adults it is finding childcare, and for the middle aged adults, many of them feel threatened by the testing and course work," Bradshaw said. "It is difficult for them to go back into the classroom and take a test after being out of it."
   DHS officials have also highlighted several causes for the understaffing at nursing homes. They have pointed to cutbacks in Medicare, low compensation, and unreasonable workloads, as some of the causes behind a shortage of workers at nursing homes.
   The aging "baby boomer" population also contributes to the staffing crisis. The large increase in the aging population needing long-term healthcare has increased faster than the number of people entering the healthcare profession.