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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

State Seeks To Address Nursing Shortage With Signing, Retention Bonuses

A complaint filed by Ismina Francois in 2016 has put a magnifying glass on working conditions for employees of color at the state-run psychiatric hospital in Berlin.
Jane Lindholm
VPR File
The Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital had to close one of its four units in July because of a nursing shortage.

The new Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital opened in Berlin just over a year ago, but a nursing shortage already has one of the hospital's four units shut down.

The hospital reached full capacity in February, with all 25 beds full, but it wasn't because the state had hired enough nurses to staff it.

"When we reached full capacity in February and when we were at full capacity, we were using a substantial amount of traveling nurses," said hospital CEO Jeff Rothenberg.

He says the two companies that were sending the traveling nurses were able to keep the hospital operating well even though the state didn't employ enough nurses to run the hospital on its own.

Then summer came, "and the number of traveling nurses that were referred to us by the two companies that we were using dropped dramatically," he said.

With not enough nurses to staff all 25 beds, and compensation packages so far failing to attract new hires, Rothenberg said the hospital had to close a five-bed unit on July 31.

Rothenberg said the companies couldn't provide nurses because of nursing shortages across Vermont and the U.S.

"What I've heard is they're having trouble filling vacancies across Vermont," he said. "We have contracted now with a third traveling company and we're working with human resources on increasing compensation for nurses here."

Rothenberg says the state is in the process of coming up with signing and retention bonuses to help attract nurses to 16 unfilled nursing positions at the hospital. Currently, Rothenberg said, the hospital has 23 full-time nurses on staff.

He says the Agency of Human Services has been aware that nursing salaries in state government make recruitment challenging, and a work group is expected to come up with recommendations soon.

"We were hoping we would be able to continue to use the same amount of traveling nurses until that work group was done with their work, but we were not able to reach that," he said, "so we're taking these interim steps of sign-on bonuses and retention bonuses in the meantime and hope for that to make a substantial difference."

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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