With COVID-19 hospitalizations still extremely elevated due to the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant, the need for nurses has never been higher.
Already facing a major nursing shortage caused by high levels of stress and burnout from the pandemic, hospitals have increasingly turned to third-party agencies to find traveling nurses to fill their staffing needs.
But according to a letter to the White House COVID-19 response team coordinator, which was signed by dozens of federal lawmakers, those third-party agencies are "taking advantage" to profit from the pandemic.
Hospitals have turned to staffing agencies to contract traveling nurses for years. But as the workforce thins and demand for health care workers surges with every new wave of COVID-19, networks have become increasingly reliant on traveling nurses to staff their hospitals.
The travel model is more lucrative for health care workers. The Dallas Morning News reports that traveling nurses in Texas make about $40,000 more per year — not including overtime — than nurses who work full time for a single hospital.
According to The Morning News, staffing agencies are able to pay travel nurses a higher wage because they charge a premium to hospitals, which have few options to fill workers during shortages amid COVID-19 surges. Every time a new wave spreads in a community, hospitals pay more to staffing agencies to hire health care professionals.
That's why Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, and Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Virginia, led a bipartisan group of dozens of lawmakers in urging White House officials to crack down on the use of traveling nurses.
"We have received reports that the nurse staffing agencies are vastly inflating price, by two, three or more times pre-pandemic rates, and then taking 40% or more of the amount being charged to the hospitals for themselves in profits," the letter, dated Jan. 24, reads.
However, the letter has prompted criticism from travel nurses accustomed to higher pay. They say flying across the country to a new city to work with sick COVID-19 patients justifies extra income.
"I have a family, I have a life, I have a home. That's why I want these funds. I want to take care of the patients, I want the increased pay because I'm sacrificing at the end of the day," Danielle Swenson, a traveling nurse from Bradenton, Florida, told Scripps station WFTS. "I don't think that's something that's unfair to think or act, and I think in any other profession, I think that's something that we would expect."
NPR reports that some states, like Massachusetts, could install rate caps for traveling nurses. While such caps would likely lower health care costs for patients, some nurses fear that they could drive down wages and send more workers away from the industry.
Toby Malara of the American Staffing Association trade group told NPR that a better solution would be to increase Medicaid payments to hospitals to bridge the wage gap between traveling nurses and full-time nurses.
"If the federal money is used to pay and retain nurses and pay them bonuses, that could be helpful. But also, it gives them a chance to push out money and pay those higher rates without thinking about it as much," he said.