Save the Life Savers: Mississippi’s Critical Front Line Healthcare Shortage

The Issue

For more than a year, Mississippi Nurses and other Front Line Healthcare Workers have cared for thousands of those who have battled COVID-19. They have served fearlessly, giving their all to save lives. Exhausted, many have left the state due to a hyper-competitive labor market and extreme demand across the country for the experienced clinical skills needed to care for these patients. Some have even abandoned the profession altogether.

2,000 FEWER NURSES are working in our state than before the pandemic (source: Center for Quality and Workforce). Mississippi is one of the unhealthiest states in the nation and it is getting worse. Yet, there is no focus on the ones who can actually make a difference. Mississippi cannot afford to lose one more nurse or caregiver – but without assistance, we will. Many other professions, including Environmental Services Workers and others, have struggled. But no single group has experienced the tumultuous redistribution of labor more than those at the bedside.

Community-based safety-net hospitals are simply unable to compete with the salaries offered by large for-profit health systems in other states. Not-for-profit health systems operate on a low to zero margin basis, serving members of the community without the resources to pay for the medical care they need. These health systems have been decimated financially by COVID, with many barely able to make payroll as it is. And without additional funds, there is no source of income to pay the wages that out-of-state entities with better payor demographics are able to pay. We do not have the funds but are asked to fight the fight regardless.

Common Myths

Many believe that hospitals received vast sums of federal money related to the pandemic already. That is incorrect, and the bulk of federal funds received were simply “advance” payments for Medicare charges that are now being paid back to the government. Point blank: there is no hospital windfall from CARES Act Funds. Others believe that treating COVID patients has been profitable for hospitals. This is also a myth. Look at most not-for-profit hospital financial statements: cash balances are down to worrisome levels because of the pandemic, and yet we must use dwindling resources to obtain more nurses now. This predicament will continue into the foreseeable future. As an example, Singing River Health System alone has incurred excess costs of nearly $30 million since the start of the pandemic.

Mississippi Can Respond

The Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program authorizes premium pay for nurses and front line healthcare workers. Per federal guidelines related to the intent of these funds, they “are both permitted and encouraged to use Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds to offer retrospective premium pay, recognizing that many essential workers have not yet received additional compensation for work performed.”

The ASK

Singing River Health System asks you to please urge our State to devote a significant portion of the $1.8 BILLION in American Rescue Plan funds to those front line healthcare workers who can be retained to serve our communities – for their willingness to make a contractual commitment to stay in Mississippi so we can stop the exodus of qualified nurses from our state and bring some back. Just 25% of the $1,800,000,000.00 may be enough to pay almost $20,000 as a retention payment to bedside nurses, respiratory therapists, and other critical caregivers inundated with out-of-state contract offers.

Singing River Health System CEO Lee Bond said:

“We are not asking for this money for hospitals. This ask is directly for the benefit of desperately needed front line healthcare warriors, so that we can retain them and improve health and save lives here in Mississippi.” Mr. Bond went on to say that this funding could be easily administered from a review of the licensing database coupled with employment verification, and distributed over a 24-month retention period pursuant to a simple universal standard agreement. The American Rescue Plan actually encourages this type of use. The economic impact would inure to Mississippi, as these are people that would be living in our state and recirculating these funds into Mississippi’s economy. Such a program would also help Mississippi get people back that have left.

Lee Bond, Chief Executive Officer

No one can blame them for leaving Mississippi to improve their financial position, but we should all be doing our part to reverse this trend. One obvious solution is to use these federal funds as intended: to help with the pandemic and simultaneously stop the exodus. There is no single better way of improving our future and the health of Mississippians than to allocate a fraction of these funds to those who will continue to make the sacrifice – mentally, physically, and financially – to stay in Mississippi.

Respectfully submitted,
Singing River Health System
August 12, 2021

How You Can Help

The future of quality care in Mississippi is at stake right now, and your voice can make all the difference in making this legislation possible. 

Below is the Save the Life Savers proposal, a letter sent to state leaders by Singing River CEO Lee Bond, and a sample message you can send as is and/or customize:

Please join us in advocating for these “Life Saving Hands” who have cared for all of us throughout this pandemic, but more importantly into the future – by calling or sending a letter, email, or text to your local and state leaders and share this message with others online.

Save The Life Savers Sources:

CEO Lee Bond on WLOX News this Week | September 12th

NPR 1A Podcast feat Lee Bond: What A Dearth Of Nurses Means For The Country And COVID

Compilation of Singing River “Save the Life Savers” proposal in the Media

CNN Article: ‘I think we already broke’: Mississippi’s nurses resigning to protect themselves from COVID-19 burnout

CNN Video: Hospitals Scrambling for Incentives to Retain Nurses Amid a Shortage

New York Times: ‘Nursing Is in Crisis’: Staff Shortages Put Patients at Risk

Cyndy O’Brien, an emergency room nurse at Ocean Springs Hospital on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, could not believe her eyes as she arrived for work. There were people sprawled out in their cars gasping for air as three ambulances with gravely ill patients idled in the parking lot. Just inside the front doors, a crush of anxious people jostled to get the attention of an overwhelmed triage nurse.

“It’s like a war zone,” said Ms. O’Brien, who is the patient care coordinator at Singing River, a small health system near the Alabama border that includes Ocean Springs. “We are just barraged with patients and have nowhere to put them.”

The bottleneck, however, has little to do with a lack of space. Nearly 30 percent of Singing River’s 500 beds are empty. With 169 unfilled nursing positions, administrators must keep the beds empty.

New York Times: Covid cases overwhelm the Gulf Coast, leaving region with no I.C.U. beds.

As of Friday, 142 people were hospitalized with Covid-19 across Singing River Health’s network, including 39 in I.C.U., and 94 percent were unvaccinated, officials said. The surge has prompted a shortage of I.C.U. beds and left staff overwhelmed.

“If you walked into our emergency department right now you would be like, ‘What is happening.’ Every single hallway has beds in it with patients, every chair,” said Ms. Murdock, describing the system’s hospital in Gulfport, where staff have converted a surgical recovery room into an overflow I.C.U.

Last week, a husband and wife in their 40s, neither of whom were vaccinated, died within days of each other, she recalled. An unvaccinated 48-year-old nurse died on Monday. “We had five people die, like room after room after room after room,” just last Friday, she said.

MSN: ‘Nursing Is in Crisis’: Staff Shortages Put Patients at Risk

Becker’s: ‘Bleaker by the day’: Hospital CEOs hard-pressed for optimism amid COVID-19 surge

NPR: Hospitals Face A Shortage Of Nurses As COVID Cases Soar

Bosten Globe: No ICU beds were available Monday in Mississippi hospitals, state and hospital officials say