Sep 26, 2023 - Health

Staffing crunch hit federal health facilities

Illustration of a health professional carrying a cardboard box packed with office items.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

A tight labor market, comparatively poor pay, COVID-19 requirements and a lengthy hiring process contributed to staffing shortages and decreased access to care at federal health care facilities during the pandemic, a new report found.

Why it matters: Officials must do more to ensure facilities are properly staffed during normal operations and strategically plan for future pandemics and other health emergencies, according to federal agency watchdogs on the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.

Details: There were nursing shortages at 91% of Veterans Health Administration facilities, 88% of Department of Defense medical treatment facilities and 69% of Federal Bureau of Prisons institutions among the study sample.

  • Each agency also reported physician shortages during the pandemic.
  • Additionally, there were shortages at 94% of nursing homes that accept Medicare and Medicaid funding — but unlike those other institutions aren't federally operated.

By the numbers: About 80% of federal inmates reported poor medical care from the Bureau of Prisons during COVID-19 lockdowns, compared to 41% before the pandemic.

  • Officials from more than half of nursing homes surveyed reported declines in residents' physical and mental health during the pandemic.
  • Providers suffered, too: Officials at all DOD facilities said personnel shortages caused increased workload and decreased morale among staff.

Zoom out: COVID-19 requirements and challenging hiring processes made staffing federal health facilities even more difficult than pre-pandemic, the report shows.

  • Officials at DOD treatment facilities said the hiring process could take six months or longer.
  • Noncompetitive pay was also a roadblock. One private health company posted a job this January with an annual salary of $81,120, which was $33,504 more than a similar job at a DOD health facility.
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