Ballad Health CEO on traveling nurse industry: ‘Entire healthcare system is buckling under the weight of this problem’

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – After four hours before a congressional subcommittee Tuesday, Ballad Health President and Chief Executive Officer Alan Levine told News Channel 11 he hopes something comes out of his testimony.

The former Secretary of Health for two states said Wednesday that he has dealt with crises such as hurricanes, oil spills and the H1N1 pandemic, but never has he seen the disparities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he did applaud the bipartisan support from the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health Tuesday when it came to three major issues.

“Number one, the severity of the problem, the severity of the shortage of healthcare manpower, in particular nursing,” Levine began.

Secondly, Levine said he was encouraged that there was widespread bipartisan agreement when he raised the issue of contract agencies in terms of how the labor markets are being distorted by what these contract agencies are doing.

“And then third, I would say I was encouraged by the fact that several members agreed with my concerns about the way the Medicare system compensates rural hospitals and physicians in rural communities.”

When it comes to contract agencies – the example he provided was travel nursing – Levine was disappointed by how disproportionately he said rural hospitals and hospital systems are being impacted.

In the quarter that ended in Sept. 2019, Levine said Ballad Health spent between $3 million to $5 million on contract labor. In the quarter that just ended in Sept. 2021, the health system spent $23 million.

“Here we are in the middle of a major international healthcare crisis. 700,000 Americans have died,” Levine said. “The entire healthcare system is buckling under the weight of this problem; the labor market is completely distorted. And here you have contract agencies taking nurses out of one hospital, paying them triple to go to another hospital right down the street, and extracting enormous profits from that.”

In his testimony Tuesday, Levine said the travel nursing industry is gutting small communities’ ability to keep their hospitals fully staffed and that travel nursing pay rates border on price gouging.

“When nurses who show up to work every day, are working next to somebody who doesn’t know anything about the culture in their hospital, doesn’t know anything about the technology, and by the way, they’re part of a contract agency where there’s huge profits being made, this is not sustainable.”

Ballad Health employs thousands of workers and receives Medicare funding, meaning the health system will have to mandate COVID vaccines soon.

“I do have worries that we could lose people, and so that’s why we haven’t mandated the vaccine up until this point. Now, if the federal government says we’re going to be thrown out of the Medicare program, if we don’t require a vaccine, I have no choice but to look at it differently,” Levine said.

“Our hospitals can’t afford to lose 70% of our reimbursement. I mean, having no hospitals in the region is simply not an acceptable option for anybody.”

Levine attributes imposing a mandate to potentially losing employees who won’t comply.

“There are reasons why people that live in rural and non-urban communities do have a different view about vaccines, and it’s inappropriate to not respect those views,” said Levine. “I don’t agree with those views. I personally think everybody should get vaccinated. But when I see people dismiss those views, as though the culture of rural America doesn’t matter, that’s wrong.”

Levine testified before the subcommittee Tuesday that the health system has seen some resignations due to the impending vaccine mandate but could not confirm with News Channel 11 Wednesday how many have resigned.

He said the hospital system still has hundreds of vacancies for nurses, and it has a staff vaccination rate of roughly 63%.

It’s still unknown when exactly Ballad will have to implement the vaccine mandate.

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