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North Dakota medical facilities continue to rely on traveling nurses

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Sanford Medical Center
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Earlier this summer, Sanford hospitals in Fargo cut traveling nurses' pay rates by up to 60%. The move came as part of a nationwide trend, says Sanford VP of Nursing Theresa Larson.

"As we looked at the demand going down, we knew that nationwide, that was what was happening. So we just followed suit, knowing that we could reduce those rates and get back in alignment with where we need to be, which is what we're working on right now."

The drop in demand for traveling nurses comes as the COVID pandemic eases its grip on North Dakota hospitals. The pandemic had caused such a demand for nursing staff that traveling nurses were being paid upwards of $100 an hour in North Dakota hospitals. Tessa Johnson, President of the North Dakota Nurses Association and executive director of a long-term care facility in Dickinson, says that these kinds of pay rates were unsustainable for medical facilities across the state.

"It's catastrophic, really. I'm already aware of two small-town long-term care facilities in our area that have closed down, partly because of this, because you just can't afford it. That's one of the things, as a long-term care administrator, that I am harping on, working with my staff every single day on: that we have to find a way to decrease agency [staff], think outside the box, and have management pick up more shifts."

While Sanford's pay cut may be seen as a sign of better times to come for hospitals, Johnson says that COVID numbers are increasing again and that her facility is as vigilant as ever.

And staffing issues remain, regardless. According to a Sanford traveling nurse who wished to remain anonymous, the pay cut led to many resignations and a change in strategy from Sanford.

"What that led to was several travelers leaving that had been there, some of them for months and some just for one contract. They left, which, in turn, left us short for a while and created a need to fill those holes again. They weren't getting people applying fast enough or enough, so they raised the rates online to more than what they cut us to."

Steps taken to combat the issue include a failed bill by the North Dakota Nurses Association to create an in-state traveling nurse agency, as well as a bill recently proposed by Senator Kevin Cramer that would require the Government Accountability Office to investigate the business practices of traveling nurse agencies, who are the middlemen between hospitals and nurses. But for now, medical facilities remain reliant on travelers even as the pandemic quiets down.

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